President Obama and Governor Romney both want a mandate – an election result showing that the voters strongly support what he wants to do in the next four years. The one certainty about this election is that neither man will get one.
To have clear title to a mandate, the winning side must accomplish three things. The first is to lay out a specific policy agenda. An incoming president can hardly assert that the election was a mandate for proposals that the electorate never heard about. The second is to win a big majority of the popular vote, at least 55 percent. And the third is to gain decisive majorities in Congress.
Yet it’s already clear – based on campaign messages, polling, and congressional redistricting – that the winner will meet none of these conditions.
Both candidates have been hazy about the nation’s harsh fiscal choices. When critics faulted Mr. Obama for lacking a second-term agenda, his campaign responded with a glossy brochure of things he’s already tried. Its message seemed to be that the road to a balanced budget is paved with attractive photographs. Mr. Romney talked about limiting some tax preferences, but never got around to naming which ones he meant.
Unless the polls are wrong, the winner will have a thin margin in the popular vote. In fact, as in the 2000 election of George W. Bush, the loser of the popular vote may prevail in the Electoral College.
As for Congress, Republicans have a virtual lock on the House of Representatives, so a reelected President Obama would confront at least one chamber whose leaders oppose him. On the Senate side, a President Romney would face either a Democratic majority or a narrow GOP majority subject to Democratic filibuster.
Mandates are rare. The last presidential election that resulted in all three conditions was 1964. And in the record books, there is an asterisk next to that one. Democrat Lyndon Johnson ran as the peace candidate, but he already knew that the situation in Vietnam was getting worse. As a result, a bitter joke arose in the mid-1960s: “They told me that if I voted for Goldwater, we’d have a war in Vietnam. They were right. I voted for Goldwater, and we had a war in Vietnam.”
Of course, our definition of “mandate” might be too narrow. If we relax the second condition about the popular vote, we might find mandates in the elections of 2004 and 2008. George W. Bush’s margin against John Kerry was narrow but his share of the popular vote was the biggest since his father’s election in 1988. Obama had an even greater triumph against John McCain, albeit with a slightly smaller share of the popular and electoral vote than the elder Bush.
Both expanded their parties’ congressional majorities and both had bold policy ideas: Social Security reform for the younger Bush, health-care reform for Obama.
Yet both came to grief. To use the presidents’ own words, Republicans took a “thumping” in the 2006 midterm, and Democrats got a “shellacking” in 2010. There were multiple reasons for these outcomes, one of which was that Bush and Obama had read too much into their own victories.
Elections are blunt instruments. The only thing that the raw numbers tell us for sure is that the voters prefer one candidate to another. They don’t tell us who likes what about the winner or who dislikes what about the loser, although polls give us some clues.
So even when winning candidates have been specific on certain issues, it does not necessarily follow that their success stemmed from those issues. Bush thought that the voters were licensing him to push private accounts for Social Security. Obama assumed that they would like the health-care bill. Public opinion polls showed that both leaders were wrong, and their parties paid the price.
Ironically, supporters of bipartisan compromise might hope that the election does not produce a presidential mandate. Presidents who think that they have carte blanche may stiff-arm the other party. Those who understand that their position is tentative may reach out for help. Bill Clinton came to office with just 43 percent of the vote, and his party suffered historic losses in the 1994 midterm election. Yet with approving votes from Republicans, his administration produced a balanced budget, welfare reform, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Granted, today’s circumstances are very different from those of the early 1990s. The economic problems are tougher, and partisan polarization is much more advanced. Yet it might not be such a bad thing if the winner of this election emerged with humility instead of hubris.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."