The Magazine

Mandate Mongering

Republicans and the temptation to hubris.

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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THE MEDIA PUNDITS and partisan spin-doctors are nearly unanimous: President Bush and the Republicans won a big, bellwether victory in the 2002 midterm elections. Most Democratic leaders, many in obvious don't-blame-me mode, agree: Bush's post-9/11 popularity, his peripatetic campaigning and fund-raising for Republican candidates, and his likable personality turned the tide. The only question remaining, it would seem, is how far, and how far right, Bush will push his new national mandate to govern over the next two years, and how much harder it will be for any Democrat to credibly challenge, let alone beat him, in 2004. All the president's men, however, should think twice: Bush's media-manufactured morning-after mandate is irresistibly self-affirming but dramatically overstated. Remember, we have heard it all before, and all of it was wrong. The morning after the 1988 election, George H.W. Bush had consolidated the Reagan legacy. In 1992, Bill Clinton recaptured Reagan Democrats, and had a new progressive mandate for change. In 1994, Reagan-Republican dominance was resurrected, courtesy of "angry white males." In 1996, GOP dominance was repudiated, courtesy of "soccer moms." In 1998, Clinton "made history" by gaining five House seats while losing none in the Senate. In 2000, the "red states" in the "evenly divided" country gave Bush a narrow Electoral College mandate, courtesy of the Supreme Court, but no mandate to govern, and Democrats could be counted on to surge in 2002 to "avenge Florida." Every one of these instant interpretations was predicated on an almost comically superficial reading of the election data and polling results. For example, in 1994, the Republicans gained 54 House seats.

But this "earthquake election," as many morning-after analysts called it, was based on only small electoral seismic shifts: If fewer than a grand total of 20,000 voters in just 13 House districts had voted Democratic instead of Republican in 1994, Democrats and Tom Foley, not Republicans and Newt Gingrich, would have led the 104th Congress. Two years earlier, many Republican gurus quickly concluded that Bush had lost to Clinton not because he had lost Democrats (Reagan or other), but because he had lost core Republican voters by being too moderate (breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, failing to court religious conservatives, and so on). Actually, Bush 41's biggest losses were not within the Republican base. They were among independents and Democrats. After winning 55 percent of independents in 1988, he won only 32 percent of their votes in 1992; if anything, they defected because they perceived him as too far to the right on many issues. As for Democrats: Reagan won 26 percent of them in 1984; Bush got 17 percent of them in 1988, but only 10 percent in 1992. For their part, the Democrats and Clinton, with only a plurality vote (43 percent), made like they believed their own mandate-for-change mantras. For two years, they pushed national health insurance and other liberal causes for which there was no mass electoral appetite in the country and no governing coalition in the Congress. Clinton recovered only when he moved back to the center, a lesson that House Democrats, his most fervent supporters, have yet to accept or master. Contrary to the conventional commentary and red-blue map-making industry, what was novel about the 2000 election results was not that the country was so evenly divided in popular vote terms, but that it was so evenly divided in terms of the Electoral College. The country has normally been very closely divided in presidential politics, and divided in ways that bunch partisan blocs by region (for example, the once Democratic but now largely Republican South). In 1980, Reagan won just 51 percent of the popular vote but 91 percent of the electoral vote. Reagan thereby joined Harry Truman (1948), John F. Kennedy (1960), Richard Nixon (1968), and Jimmy Carter (1976) as a first-term president who won barely 50 percent of the popular vote. Clinton, of course, was twice merely a plurality president. Bush 43's victory was different in that, rather than carrying 55 to 70 percent of the electoral vote, he lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College both by razor-thin margins. Likewise, all recent national congressional election results are best interpreted as the product of the incumbency-protection and voter-apathy machine that is the United States Congress. Since 1962, the vast majority (over 90 percent in many years)of House incumbents who sought reelection won it. Gerrymandering has become a near-exact science. Six states added, and five states lost, House seats after both the 1990 census and the 2000 census. The biggest winner is Florida (+10), the biggest loser is New York (-5), and the slight advantage goes to sun-seeking Republicans. The whole system, however, is predicated on low, and predictable, voter turnout.