Washington — No sooner does an election end than a battle begins over interpreting the results. And many Reagan Republicans already worry that their side may lose this fray by overestimating its mandate and, as a result, overreach itself in claiming its share of the 1980 election spoils. In so doing, it could jeopardize any chance for bigger GOP gains in 1982 and 1984.
The 1980 results appear uniquely tied to economic performance. President Jimmy Carter's record has received a failing grade, and President-elect Ronald Reagan's promises will be given a chance to prove themselves. The election results were not an endorsement of a particular GOP economic theory, and certainly not a mandate for a broad "conservative" social agenda, Republican and independent analysts agree.
The early test for President-elect Reagan may come in imposing discipline on new Senate committee chairmen who already have begun to fill a Capitol Hill agenda with their own pet projects.
Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the likely chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promises to introduce a death penalty bill for murder, treason, and kidnapping where federal laws are involved. Sen. Jake Garn of Utah , incoming Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee chief, says he will move quickly to repeal organized labor's favored Davis-Bacon Act, which affects wage and work rules in federal housing programs. And Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, designated chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, wants to reduce the minimum wage for younger workers.
Such initiatives could prove too contentious, unnecessarily riling blue-collar workers needed for a lasting new GOP coalition and distracting attention from the basic economic objectives of halting inflation and boosting production, Republican Party officials warn.
"All right, we won," says Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, who is in the running for House minority leader and was quarterback of the 1980 GOP House election drive. "We won big. But the report card comes fast. We've made a lot of promises. We'll have to produce."
Mr. Vander Jagt says the influence on the GOP's success of issues unrelated to economics, such as those raised by conservative evangelical Christian groups, was "minuscule," and "probably a bigger problem than a help."
"History is not on our side," he says in estimating GOP prospects for 1982. "In an off-year election, the president's party usually loses."
"People were voting for a change, not necessarily for Republicans," Vander Jagt says in the case of the 52 new GOP congressmen. "Last time, in '78, a majority of Americans didn't even know it was a Democratic Congress. This time [because of an aggressive GOP ad campaign] 82 percent knew."
The public's demand for better economic results has played a dominant role in the 1976 and 1980 presidential elections, says John Kessell, Ohio State University elections expert. The results show no clear trend for either party.
"The only constant thing I see is the public attitudes on economics have favored the challenger, because of the failure of the incumbent -- Republican or Democrat -- to deal with inflation or the economy generally," Mr. Kessell says.
"It's a pragmatic, specific, coping, experimental kind of response, not an ideological response.
"Everyone wants to interpret the results, liberal or conservative, in the light of their preferences," Kessell says. But he sees Americans still in the moderate center, with "most of the political movement still between the two 45 -yard lines."
Instead of a swing back and forth between liberalism and conservatism, Kessell sees in this election again the forward ratcheting mechanism.
"In America, a social process is addressed, consensus is arrived at but not rescinded. The liberalism of the past becomes the moderate center of today," he says.
In 1972, economic issues did not play the role they did in 1976 or 1980, Kessell says. George McGovern was rejected despite the public's perception that the Democrats could have done a better job of managing the economy than the Republicans.
In that year, 9 of 11 key voter attitudes favored the Republicans. The nine included international issues, the incumbent's record, and the capacity to manage the office of the White House, Kessell says.
In 1976, Gerald Ford was ahead in all the candidate references -- including trust, management ability, personality, nonpresidential experience. Carter was favored in three "trivial" categories -- tied to party comments, social benefits , and agriculture -- plus the pivotal category, economics.
"The one big thing that overrode everything else in 1976 was economics," Kessell says. "The recession of '74, '75, '76 was what elected Carter. There was no personal support there. When he proved unable to perform in economics, there was no reason to keep him in office. And the vote shifted.
"The 1980 election was a half a landslide: a negative landslide for Carter, not a positive landslide for Reagan.
Reagan's mandate is to get in there and fix things that are wrong."