Politics & Policy

Does Donald Trump Have a Mandate?

Trump campaigns in Grand Junction, Colo., in October. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
The president-elect enters the White House with a good amount of political capital — but the Republican Congress has more.

As of this writing, Donald Trump won 47 percent of the popular vote and 306 electoral votes en route to the White House. Does that mean President-elect Trump has a mandate? It depends on how you define the term, but if anyone has a mandate in American government right now, it’s the Republican Congress.

Three Kinds of Presidential Mandates

There are really three kinds of “mandates.”

The first and simplest one is an executive mandate: Is Trump the legitimately elected 45th president of the United States? Love him or hate him, he is. He won by the rules of the game, rules set forth in the Constitution 229 years ago and clearly understood by both sides entering the election. This entitles and obligates him to exercise the powers of the Executive Branch within their constitutional scope.

The fact that Trump did not win the national popular vote is irrelevant to his executive mandate — and not all that unusual in our system of government, either. Depending on how you count it, we’ve had either four or five prior presidents who did not win the national popular vote, and while that was a modest initial political liability for those presidents, their later success stood or fell on what they did with the office if they were able to win the Electoral College cleanly. The first two, however, didn’t pull off clean wins in the Electoral College:

  • John Quincy Adams in 1824 needed the House of Representatives to pick him as the president after there was no Electoral College majority, and it was the “corrupt bargain” struck with House Speaker Henry Clay — who threw his support to Adams and became Secretary of State — that gave Andrew Jackson the ammunition to hobble Adams’s administration and defeat him four years later.
  • Rutherford B. Hayes lost a majority to Samuel Tilden, if you take at face value the vote counts in Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction states where the election was marred by widespread violence and intimidation. But a backroom deal seated Hayes’s electors and gave him the presidency in exchange for an end to Reconstruction. He served one term, ultimately honoring his pledge not seek reelection in 1880.
  • Benjamin Harrison narrowly lost the popular vote in unseating Grover Cleveland in 1888, and was then defeated by Cleveland in 1892. But that was simply a series of very close races in a 20-year stretch when neither party earned a majority of the popular vote for president; in the interim, Harrison undertook an ambitious agenda in office.
  • John F. Kennedy, in the razor-close 1960 election, may actually have lost the popular vote depending on how you count votes cast for independent “Dixiecrat” electors in Alabama. Unlike the GOP electors in Alabama, these electors did not run as Kennedy electors, but five of them voted for JFK in the Electoral College, so he’s usually counted as getting all the votes cast for them. The closeness of Kennedy’s victory made him cautious, but no more or less so depending on how one counted those votes in Alabama.
  • George W. Bush, of course, narrowly lost the popular vote, a fact exacerbated by the Florida recount — yet four years later, Bush won a popular majority. If Trump is seen by the voters as a good president, he may do the same — and if he’s seen as a bad one, that will be his undoing, not the popular vote in 2016. Until Barack Obama, every modern president to win reelection did so by expanding his voting coalition.

A second kind of mandate is a voting-coalition mandate: what Trump’s own voters wanted from him when they voted for him. It can be hazardous for a president to deliver something very different in office than promised (think of George H. W. Bush and “read my lips,” or LBJ and Vietnam). What the 61 million (and counting) Trump voters expect is debatable: Beyond building a wall on the Mexican border and taking a tough line on trade with China, there aren’t a whole lot of campaign promises he talked about with much consistency and concreteness. He has promised to repeal Obamacare, but unlike Paul Ryan, he has a lot less invested in the details of the law’s repeal and what might replace it. He will face some major blowback from a significant chunk of his base if he picks a Supreme Court nominee who is not on his much-touted shortlist; according to exit polls, Trump won by 15 points among the 21 percent of voters who said the Supreme Court was “the most important factor” in their vote, lost 48–47 among the 48 percent of voters who said it was “an important factor,” and lost by twelve points among the rest of the electorate.

All that said, a lot of the key working-class Trump voters in the Rust Belt care more about economic prosperity than about any particular policy, so Trump’s fate will be tied even more than most presidents’ to his perceived handling of the economy. What that means in terms of the mandate his supporters have given him is that he should focus on policies that are likely to deliver results.

The third kind of mandate is the one we usually mean when we use the term: a legislative mandate. A president can be said to have this kind of mandate when his popular support is such that other people in the political system feel compelled to help him do things that he wants to do, and that they don’t. The strength of a newly elected or reelected president’s legislative mandate can be measured by how afraid senators and representatives are that their constituents will punish them for opposing him. That kind of fear becomes even more important as bipartisan norms of comity continue to degrade at a rapid pace.

A legislative mandate is irrelevant if you have enough votes to pass things through Congress just with the support of people who already agree with you. Ronald Reagan needed, and had, a mandate on economic and budget issues in 1981, just as FDR did in 1932: While he had the votes of people who believed in Reaganomics, a fair number of wavering Democrats went along with Reagan, across party lines, because they felt the voters wanted them to. (In one famous anecdote, Reagan got a Pennsylvania Democrat to vote for his tax-cut plan by calling into a radio show and asking for his support live on the air.) Barack Obama had a similar mandate in 2009, but never really tested its limits on Republicans — he had the votes of his own party to do whatever he wanted, so he was able to pass the stimulus with the support of only three Republican senators and no Republicans in the House, and to pass Obamacare without any GOP support whatsoever. That said, surely fear of crossing Obama publicly helped keep a lot of Democrats in line throughout his tenure. Had he needed Republican support and made more policy concessions, more Republicans would have felt pressure to support him, especially on the stimulus.

Whether Trump needs a legislative mandate depends on what he tries to do. House Republicans have a commanding majority, so if Trump tries to push policies most Republicans agree with, he will succeed in the House without needing to expend much political capital. Senate Republicans have 52 votes, plus Vice President Pence in the case of ties, so they too can win floor votes on anything that attracts Republican support, and on tax and budget bills subject to 51-vote reconciliation rules. But the real action in the Senate always revolves around the additional eight votes needed to get cloture on legislation and judges. For those votes, Trump may need to dip into the well of eleven Democratic Senators from states he carried in 2016, ten of whom are up for reelection in 2018: Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Tester, Joe Donnelly, Bob Casey, Bill Nelson, Sherrod Brown, Debbie Stabenow, and Tammy Baldwin. Some of those are senators from deep-red states who only survived 2012 due to bad opponents and Obama turnout, so they ought to be nervous. Others, such as Sherrod Brown, are making conciliatory noises already. But this will be a delicate dance for Democrats who depend on turnout from voters now demanding a hard line against Trump.

A legislative mandate gets more complicated if Trump (as expected) pushes some legislation and nominees that appeal more to Democrats than to Republicans; in those cases, he will need both Democrats willing to put policy gains above partisanship and Republicans willing to do the opposite.


The People’s House

The White House isn’t the only source of power in Washington, of course. There’s also the Republican Congress, which has a much greater claim to a mandate than the newly elected president. Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives for the fourth consecutive cycle, and in the Senate for the second straight cycle. In so doing, they decisively laid to rest the popular Democratic claim that the GOP Congress is solely a creation of lower-turnout midterm elections.

In the House, the GOP held 247 seats after the 2014 election, the largest Republican House majority since 1928, and successfully defended all but a handful of them in 2016: pending a runoff in Louisiana’s fourth district (where no one candidate got a majority but Republicans got 68 percent of the vote) and the final call of Darrell Issa’s race in California’s 49th (at last check, Issa leads by over 4,000 votes), the GOP is likely to hold 241 seats. Republicans added three Democratic-held House seats while losing nine seats of their own, for a net loss of six seats. Their continued strength is not just a result of gerrymandering: Republicans won the popular vote in the House, at this writing by a majority vote (50 percent to 47.2 percent). Some 3.45 million more Americans voted for Republican House candidates than voted for Democratic ones. That margin is more than three times Hillary’s margin over Trump in the national popular vote. The House GOP’s popular vote victory is even more impressive when you consider that 34 House Democratic candidates ran unopposed, compared to 28 House Republicans.

Simply put, the House Democrats are a narrowly regional caucus compared to the House GOP.

Simply put, the House Democrats are a narrowly regional caucus compared to the House GOP. Republicans hold the majority of House seats in 32 states, compared to 17 for the Democrats, with Maine evenly divided. Thirty-nine of the 194 House Democrats — 20 percent of the caucus — hail from a single state, California, where the Democrats hold 73 percent of the House seats. Thirty-nine more come from New York and Illinois, where Democrats collectively hold 70 percent of the House seats. Another 36 represent ten other states (all of them in New England, the Pacific Coast, or bordering California or D.C.), where Democrats collectively hold 92 percent of the House seats — Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Those three groups comprise almost 60 percent of the caucus. Only 33 House Democrats are from states carried by Romney; 18 others are from states carried by Trump.

Paul Ryan himself is now a known quantity with a known agenda, having been on a national ticket and having led the House GOP for over a year. He has quelled every effort to depose him — he won a landslide primary victory by 70 points over a Breitbart-backed challenger, won his purple House district by 80 points, and was unanimously backed to remain as speaker by his caucus Tuesday. The voters have resoundingly returned Ryan’s caucus to Washington, and he has every reason to claim a mandate of his own. All indications are that he is eager to use it.

The Senate of the Republic

Over in the Senate, Mitch McConnell kept his head down throughout most of 2016’s drama over how Ryan and Trump would get along, as befits the fact that Ryan was elevated to his role in large part to act as the public face of his caucus, while many other Senators have a higher personal profile than McConnell. The Senate GOP is, like most Senate caucuses, harder to discipline on party-line votes than its House counterpart, but Senate Republicans can likewise claim as much or more support from the voters as either President Trump or the Democrats. Republicans won 21 of the 32 Senate races decided on Election Day, and will almost certainly win number 22 in Louisiana in December. They did so by running stronger than either presidential ticket.

The exit polls tell a tale of an electorate that was seriously dissatisfied with its choices for the Oval Office: Sixty percent had an unfavorable view of Trump, 54 percent of Clinton. 63 percent said Trump wasn’t honest and trustworthy, 60 percent mistrusted Clinton. 60 percent said Trump was unqualified for the job, 47 percent said the same of Clinton. Sixty-three percent said Trump lacked the temperament for the job, 43 percent said the same of Clinton. The number of voters who said yes for both candidates to any of these questions was in the low single digits. These numbers are a sharp downturn from 2012, when Obama was viewed unfavorably by 46 percent of the electorate and Romney by 50 percent, and both candidates were trusted by a majority of voters to handle an international crisis.

In 2016, voters who disliked both candidates were much more likely to pick Trump, as the candidate of the party out of power. Eighteen percent of voters had an unfavorable view of both candidates, and Trump won them by 20 points, 49–29 (22 percent of them voted for someone else). Twenty-nine percent, almost a third, thought neither candidate was honest, and Trump won them 45–40. Fourteen percent thought neither candidate was qualified to be president, and Trump won them 69–15. A similar proportion thought neither had a presidential temperament, and Trump won them 71–12.

The same voters holding their noses at both presidential candidates overwhelmingly preferred Republican candidates for the Senate. There are 18 Senate races for which we have exit-poll data, and the Republican candidate won voters who viewed both presidential candidates unfavorably in 17 of them. In 16 of them, the Republican won those voters by at least ten points, and in 13 of them by a margin of at least 20 points. Marco Rubio won those voters 72–23, Pat Toomey 63–30, Ron Johnson 69–22, Richard Burr 69–27, Rob Portman 68–21, Chuck Grassley 73–23, Mike Lee 82–13, Tim Scott 72–26. Even losing Senate candidates such as Kelly Ayotte (58–33), Joe Heck (56–29), and Darryl Glenn (56–33) cleaned up with voters who disliked both Trump and Clinton.

Republicans won 21 of the 32 Senate races decided on Election Day, and will almost certainly win number 22 in Louisiana in December.

That dissatisfaction played out in the poor showings by both presidential candidates. Democrats cite the fact that Clinton won the popular vote. But she did not win a popular vote majority, after her party had won the White House by majority vote the past two elections. That’s not because there were third-party candidates in the race — Gary Johnson and Jill Stein both ran in 2012 as well. The Greens have been on the ballot every election since 1996, the Libertarians since 1972. Evan McMullin, the other notable third-party candidate, was an obscure House staffer whose campaign only existed because of movement-conservative and Mormon dissatisfaction with Trump. The third parties featured no Ross Perot–type figure; they got votes because the two major-party candidates turned off a lot of voters who needed somewhere to go.

In 2012, 15 states were decided by less than ten points; Obama won a majority of the vote in ten of those states and Romney in four, while neither candidate claimed a majority in Florida. By contrast, in 2016, 17 were decided by less than ten points — twelve of them states where Obama won a majority four years ago — and Trump won a majority in just three (Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia), while Hillary did not win a majority in any of them. Yet, Senate Republicans faced no such struggle: In five of the states where no presidential candidate got a majority — Florida (Rubio 52 percent), Arizona (McCain 53.4 percent), North Carolina (Burr 51.1 percent), Wisconsin (Johnson 50.2 percent), and Utah (Lee 68 percent) — a Senate Republican did. Pat Toomey and Kelly Ayotte likewise each got a higher percentage of the vote than either presidential candidate in their state. Republican candidates for the Senate ran ahead of Trump in 23 of the 32 states where there was a GOP Senate candidate on the ballot (including the total Republican vote in Louisiana’s jungle primary). GOP Senate candidates also won more votes than Clinton in 23 of 32 states. Besides Alaska, where the Republican vote was split between Lisa Murkowski and 2010 GOP nominee Joe Miller (who ran as a Libertarian), the only states Trump won where he drew a higher percentage of the vote than the Republican Senate candidates were Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

#related#Extrapolating meaning from the Senate popular-vote total is dicey, because not every state voted for Senate — the biggest red state of all, Texas, had no Senate race in 2016. (On the whole, Hillary won a slightly larger share of the popular vote in the states with Senate races than she did nationally.) Moreover, because of California’s unique primary system, there was no Republican on the ballot in the Golden State, where Democrats got 8 million Senate votes to zero for the GOP. Outside of that race, where there were actual contests, Republican Senate candidates drew 1.88 million more votes than their Democratic opponents. And as in the House, the Democrats’ vote was highly concentrated in just a few deep-blue states: Chuck Schumer beat Wendy Long by almost 3 million votes, whereas Rob Portman had the largest margin of victory for any Republican at 1.18 million. The GOP margin outside those two big blue states was 4.7 million votes. While the Democrats ran up the score in two states, Republicans won the popular vote in 19 Senate races by 100,000 or more votes, compared to nine for the Democrats. Their losses were narrow ones: Ayotte lost by fewer than eight hundred votes, Joe Heck by 26,000.

— Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York City and an NRO contributing columnist.


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