Photo by Gage Skidmore
Just after the election, Joe Biden claimed a mandate:
“They’ve (voters) given us a mandate for action on COVID, the economy, on climate change and systemic racism. They made it clear they want the country to come together not continue to pull apart.”
This is nothing new. Regardless of the circumstances, victors often invoke the mandate narrative. After losing the popular vote in 2016, Donald Trump declared a “massive landslide victory in the Electoral College”. Following relatively close re-election contests, George W Bush and Barack Obama asserted their policies were vindicated.
Emboldened by victory, presidents are effectively arguing that Congress should grant them deference in executing their agendas. The logic is simple enough: Let the new President carry out the policies that he promised during the campaign. After all, the people voted, and Joe Biden won. It’s the Democrat’s turn.
But what is a mandate, and can Biden legitimately claim one?
A mandate is central to democratic politics. It connects policy to the wishes of the electorate. This is what democracy is supposed to do.
Noted democracy scholar, Robert A Dahl observed that elections can be interpreted as policy mandates: “a clear majority of voters preferred the winner because they prefer his policies and wish him to pursue his policies.” Therefore, newly elected presidents, buoyed by the will of the people, assume the authority to carry out campaign promises.
Research shows a key factor in the president’s success with Congress is in fact public support. Mandate claims, especially those after landslide elections, can therefore be effective in influencing legislative behavior. And, during the first few months of the term called the “honeymoon ”, Congress does seem to respect the mandate claim.
But not all mandates are equal. And not all newly elected Presidents enjoy a honeymoon.
Because they matter, mandates are scrutinized and challenged by the opposition. To be sure, claims are more persuasive if the candidate wins by overwhelming popular vote margins and the electoral college vote totals are extraordinary. But for closer contests, opponents will argue that the newly elected president has no warrant to call on Congress to fund campaign promises – with a slim margin of victory and a divided electorate. The White House, meanwhile, will counter that the election triumph demands that Congress act on campaign promises thereby validating the people’s choice.
Let’s examine 2 measures that help determine whether Biden can justifiably claim a mandate.
Electoral College Votes
The chart below depicts the number of electoral college votes that exceeded the majority threshold required to win – over 270. Three points are noteworthy. First, several elections produced electoral college landslides, as the winner surpassed the 270 threshold by well over 100 votes – examples 1964, 1972, 1980, and 1984. Notice, however, since the 1990s, those electoral college margins are much tighter. In short, our presidential elections are increasingly competitive.
Second, the 2000 election shows just how close a presidential election can be. George W. Bush surpassed the electoral college threshold by one vote. Four years later, Bush won another squeaker, edging John Kerry by less than 20 electoral college votes. Besides 2000, the 2004 contest was the closest electoral college margin in decades.
Finally, Biden’s 306 electoral college votes gave him 36 more votes than required. That figure exceeded George W. Bush’s electoral college margins in both 2000 and 2004 and surpassed John F. Kennedy’s total in 1960 and Nixon’s in 1968.
Yet, ironically, Biden’s total matched Trump’s 2016 tally over Hillary Clinton. Biden’s Electoral College totals thus put him in noteworthy historical company – among the closest electoral college votes in the modern era.
Electoral college votes can be deceiving. Recall, popular votes and electoral college votes are not equivalent. The 2000 and 2016 election demonstrated the popular vote winner can in fact lose the election.
So, perhaps claims of democratic legitimacy should begin with popular vote totals.
Let’s take a look.
Across 16 elections, the average popular vote margin was approximately 7 million (see table). 1960 was a razor thin victory for John F. Kennedy. Likewise, Richard Nixon edged Hubert Humphrey in a very close 1968 contest. And, while Al Gore won the popular vote by half a million, he did not win the presidency in 2000. Barack Obama’s popular vote margin in 2008 was the largest since Ronald Reagan’s sweeping victory over Walter Mondale in 1984.
Popular Vote Totals and Margins of Victory
|Year||Dem pop vote||Rep pop vote||Disparity|
Biden’s margin of victory of 7 million appears typical, right on the historical average – though he did receive more popular votes than any other presidential candidate in history. Like his electoral college total, Biden’s popular vote margin makes it difficult to sustain the mandate narrative. Perhaps if Biden’s vote totals had reached pre-election forecasts, a stronger argument could be made. But Biden’s national popular vote margins were short of expectations and margins in several swing states fell notably below projections – and Biden’s defeat in Florida certainly renewed doubts about the forecasting industry.
2020 was a close election in a period defined by highly competitive elections – notice in the last 16 presidential elections, each party has won 8.
For the six most recent elections, the average popular vote margin was 4.7 million and the electoral vote margin 41. From this vantage point, only Biden’s popular margin of victory appears significant. Using a longer time frame – beginning in 1960, Biden’s electoral college margins are in fact smaller than normal and his popular vote margin average. Neither comparison establishes a Biden mandate.
Biden’s victory does bring an end to the Trump era and signals a return of centrism. During the campaign, Biden argued the stakes were high and the battle was over the very soul of America. Time will tell whether Biden secured the hearts of Americans and whether he can truly hold the middle in the age of partisan rancor and polarization.
Look for part 2, where I evaluate several additional mandate criteria.