Two weeks before Republican Donald Trump goes down to defeat on Nov. 8, conservatives are lining up to declare preemptively that the Democratic standard-bearer will not under any circumstances emerge from the election with a mandate to govern or enact an agenda.
Of course Hillary Clinton’s opponents would say that. It’s in their interests to minimize the political damage of the potentially historic landslide confronting them. No one should expect to hear them pronounce, "Yep, we’re going get slammed on Election Day. I guess then we’ll know for sure that the American people prefer to be led by Democrats."
But do those of us who aren’t Republican political operatives have reason to take the GOP’s spin seriously? Is it really true that, no matter how decisively she prevails on Election Day, Clinton will lack a mandate from the voters?
The answer is an obvious no. The wider Clinton’s margin of victory and the closer she comes to winning an outright majority of the votes cast, the more persuasive her claim of a mandate will be. And if she actually crosses the 50 percent threshold, she’ll have one of the strongest claims to a mandate in nearly a century.
The Real Clear Politics polling average has Clinton pulling 45 percent of the vote and prevailing over Trump by 5.8 percentage points. Viewed in historical context, a 45 percent showing would be quite strong for a multi-person contest, especially one that is actually an unprecedented five-candidate race. (Independent Evan McMullin is unlikely to break the one percent threshold nationally, since he’s only on the ballot in 11 states, but recent polls show him leading in Utah. Libertarian Gary Johnson, meanwhile, currently averages 6.1 percent nationally, while the Green Party’s Jill Stein is polling at 2.1 percent.) If Clinton ends up beating Trump with 45 percent of the vote, her totals will place her exactly two points ahead of Bill Clinton’s 1992 take in his race against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot and 1.6 points ahead of Richard Nixon’s 43.4 percent victory against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace in 1968.
When it comes to the margin of victory in multi-person races, 5.8 points would place Clinton far ahead of Nixon’s narrow 0.7 percentage point victory in 1968, ahead of Harry Truman, who prevailed over Thomas Dewey by 4.5 points in 1948, slightly ahead of Bill Clinton’s margin of 5.6 points in 1992, and quite a bit behind both Bill Clinton’s 1996 spread (8.5 percentage points) and Ronald Reagan’s in 1980 (9.7 percentage points).
That’s a solid mandate, if not a massive one.
But what if the RCP average is coming in low (perhaps in part because it includes the outlier U.S.C. Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Daybreak and GOP-friendly Rasmussen polls)? Two recent polls have put the race at roughly 50 percent for Clinton and 38 percent for Trump. If Clinton managed to break the majority threshold and beat Trump by 12 points, then the case for a mandate really would be incontestable. Not only would Clinton become just the third candidate in a century to reach 50 percent in a multi-person race (Reagan was the last, in 1980), but she would have done so by the widest margin of victory since Calvin Coolidge’s 25.2 point blowout against Democrat John W. Davis and Progressive Robert La Follette in 1924 — 92 years ago.
If that’s not a strong mandate, I don’t know is.
But wait, scream the critics — all those votes for Clinton won’t really be cast for the Democrat! Properly understood, they’re votes against Trump. So there’d be no mandate for Clinton, after all.
To which the proper response is to say: That isn’t how this works. There are any number of ways to express one’s disapproval of Trump, only one of which involves casting a ballot for Clinton. People can vote for Johnson, or Stein, or McMullin, or write in someone else, or not vote at all. A vote for Clinton, by contrast, is a vote for Clinton, and in assessing a possible mandate it should be given precisely as much weight as any other vote in any other election.
Then there are those who dismiss the very idea of an electoral mandate. These naysayers have a point. Yet one wonders if they took the same position the last time one of their preferred candidates claimed to win a mandate.
Remember, the temptation to claim a mandate is a function of our winner-take-all electoral system. Whoever wins a plurality of the votes in a presidential election receives 100 percent of the power and prestige. That gap between popular support and the spoils of victory — the fact that even in a landslide in which the victor wins a clear majority of the votes, tens of millions of voters will have supported the defeated candidate, who walks away with nothing at all — understandably encourages those who prevail in presidential elections to claim more legitimacy for themselves than the raw data might warrant.
They do this by trying to persuade the nation that, in the light of history and expectations going into the election, they deserve the benefit of the doubt, a chance to enact an agenda, and an opportunity to be judged on its basis in the court of public opinion and in the next round of voting.
Will Clinton win by such a wide margin that she’ll be able to claim a massive, historic mandate? Probably not. The final result, I suspect, will end up somewhere between today’s RCP average and its current 12-point outer limit. But even that will be more than enough to justify claiming a very solid mandate to govern — regardless of how much Republicans may wish (and pretend) it were otherwise.