Here’s a test: Make a case for your preferred presidential candidate without mentioning his or her opponent.
Whoever wins in November will likely be the most unpopular presidential candidate ever elected. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows that 53.5 percent of voters disapprove of Hillary Clinton. And many of those polls were taken during her post-convention bounce. That means that the best she can hope for is that somewhat over half the electorate doesn’t like her. But she actually looks good compared to Donald Trump. Just a third of voters approve of Trump. Nearly 63 percent disapprove.
Even voters who have settled on a candidate are less than enthusiastic about their choice. Less than half of both Trump and Clinton voters say that they “strongly support” their candidate. Overall, 57 percent of voters say that they are dissatisfied with both candidates, including 31 percent who are “very dissatisfied.” Only 13 percent report that they are “very satisfied” with their choice.
Since, barring a Gary Johnson upset or intervention by the Sweet Meteor of Death, one of them will have to win, millions of Americans will be voting for someone they don’t think should be president. In fact, half of all those voting for Clinton and 55 percent of those voting for Trump say that they are actually voting against the other candidate rather than for their choice.
That’s not exactly what one would call a mandate.
Of course, even if Trump or Clinton were far more popular than they are, it’s hard to see what either of them would have a mandate to do. Both candidates have changed positions with almost metronomic regularity. About all we really know about Donald Trump’s program is that he wants to build a wall, loves guns, and doesn’t love Muslims. And for all of Hillary’s 257-page position papers, does anyone really know what she is for besides a vague idea of higher taxes and bigger government? Perhaps that’s why 59 percent of voters say that they are more focused on the candidates’ personalities than on their positions.
In addition, neither candidate is likely to wind up with a Congress anxious to enact his or her agenda. At this point, it seems likely that the Democrats will take back control of the Senate. But, if they do, it will be far more attributable to Trump’s unpopularity than to any sort of Clinton coattails. And almost no observer suggests that the Democrats will win enough seats to eliminate the Republicans’ ability to mount a filibuster. If Clinton were to win in a landslide, the GOP margin in the House would surely be reduced, but Paul Ryan, not Nancy Pelosi, would still be Speaker next year.
If Trump somehow manages to eke out a win and take the Oval Office, he will almost certainly enjoy Republican control of both the House and the Senate. It is hard to imagine very many ticket splitters choosing Trump and a Democratic Congress. But, at the same time, Trump has done his best to alienate congressional Republicans. His entire campaign rationale is antipathy for the “establishment,” which presumably includes the Republicans whose backing he will need to pass his agenda — whatever that turns out to be.
The likely result of all this is that very little is going to get done over the next four years. That means the Democrats’ worst ideas are not going to become law. Gridlock can be our friend. But this country does face serious problems. Our national debt is $19.4 trillion and growing. The economy remains sluggish, mired in the slowest recovery in modern history. The balance between security and civil liberties in the face of continuing terrorist threats remains elusive. And so on.
Unfortunately, unless something changes between now and November, the only mandate our next president will have is to not be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Given the problems we face, we should ask for just a little bit more.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis. You can follow him on Twitter @mtannercato, or on his blog, TannerOnPolicy.com.