There’s already widespread concern about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. Mail-in ballots and ballot counting have become the subject of partisan disagreement. And when asked whether he would accept the results of the election and commit to a peaceful transfer of power, President Trump has replied, “We’ll see what happens.” It looks as if we might be in for a bumpy election night – or election month. But, hopefully, at the end of it all, the legitimate winner will become president on Jan. 20, 2021. How might the unusual 2020 election shape his ability to govern?
Put another way: How will either Trump or Joe Biden emerge from 2020 with a mandate to enact his policies and agenda?
Political scientists have been pretty adamant that mandates — i.e. claims along the lines of “the people elected me to do x, y and z” — aren’t real. It’s impossible to know exactly why people voted the way they did, and inevitably millions of people will have different reasons for casting a ballot. Even if we could determine a clear reason why the winner won, how should the views of voters who cast ballots for the losing side be factored in?
Still, the idea of an electoral mandate remains powerful. So what does the research tell us about how presidents claim mandates, and how those claims are received? First, presidents tend to claim mandates when they need to bolster their legitimacy – when they’re facing political pushback, trying to expand presidential power into new areas, or public trust in institutions is flagging in general, as I write in my book, “Delivering the People’s Message.” Furthermore, I find that partisan polarization makes it more likely that presidents will have to defend themselves from political attacks and makes it easier for them to claim the election was fought between two distinct sets of policy or ideological alternatives.
With that in mind, it seems likely that we can expect a lot of mandate claims from either a newly elected Biden administration or a second-term Trump administration. Either would likely need to strengthen his legitimacy with a large segment of the American public — and to do so at a time when trust in most institutions is at a nadir and partisan polarization is high.
But that is a look at mandates from the president’s point of view, in which incentives to claim one are obvious. There’s also the question of whether anyone will buy it.
A few things make the public more receptive to mandate claims, according to research. As an example, the unexpected victories of President Reagan in 1980 and GOP congressional majorities in 1994 contributed to media narratives about the election mandates signaling voter support for serious policy change. In turn, members of Congress responded and voted differently on proposed legislation than they might have normally, authors Lawrence Grossback, David Peterson and James Stimson argue in the book, “Mandate Politics.”
It’s hard to say how 2020 scores in this area. If this had been a normal year and Trump a more “normal” president, we’d likely be expecting a close election. The important features of public opinion in the Trump era seem to be partisanship and stability in polling. Trump’s job approval ratings haven’t moved very much over the course of his presidency, even during an eventful year that included an impeachment, a pandemic, social unrest and an economic collapse. Even when the economy was strong, Trump was unpopular. As for Biden, he’s not as unpopular as Hillary Clinton was during her 2016 presidential campaign. But as recently as August, a quarter of the American public thought that neither candidate would make a good president, a figure that’s higher than recent years.
This signals either candidate could likely face legitimacy questions and partisan pushback. So, based on the research, we might expect lots of mandate-claiming met with lots of skepticism in that scenario.
Of course, the circumstances are anything but normal right now — in such a way that the election result could be perceived as surprising. The pandemic and economic crisis seem to have affected the dynamics of the presidential race, even as disapproval of Trump has remained relatively steady. Biden is ahead in most polls and by a lot nationally. Trump still has a meaningful chance at winning, mostly if there’s a large polling error in his favor. But a Trump win would certainly count as an upset based on the polling, and would be surprising in that sense.
Even a Biden win might have some surprising aspects. As of today, our election forecast shows Biden has a 28 in 100 chance of winning in a landslide. And the last time an incumbent president lost reelection was 1992. Add in the specter of 2016, when many people incorrectly interpreted Clinton’s small lead in polls as impregnable, and you can imagine that the media might treat a Biden win — particularly a big one — as a surprise.
With these factors in mind, each candidate might find it easier to convince the media and public he has a mandate.
Because the election is taking place amid multiple crises, Biden in particular could make a credible case in claiming a mandate — the script for when a challenger wins in the midst of a period of national crisis or economic downturn is a well-worn one. That dynamic played out in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932 and Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980. The winners had opportunities to claim a mandate for change and both were successful in persuading people the country was ready for a new approach.
At the same time, the perception that an election was largely a negative referendum on the incumbent — rather than an affirmative vote of confidence in the challenger — can limit the possibilities to sell the public on a mandate for a specific agenda. In his first year in office, Barack Obama fell a bit into this trap, often talking about the 2008 election as a rejection of Republican economic policies. This was a reasonable response to near-universal resistance from congressional Republicans, but it also neglected to say much about what kind of economic agenda the voters might want instead. In other words, elections that are widely understood to be a rejection of the incumbent are often good for the challenger when it comes to the vote totals, but more challenging to reframe as a public endorsement of new ideas or policies.
But, of course, it’s 2020 and the deadly pandemic and economic collapse aren’t our only crises. We’re also looking at a potentially contested election in which the president has falsely suggested mail-in ballots are not secure, undermining faith in the integrity of the election at best, setting us up for — in a worse-case scenario — a constitutional crisis. And, as mentioned, Trump has refused to agree that he would respect the election results and ensure a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election.
These words from a sitting president are unprecedented, but we’ve had contested elections before. Several of these have been deep in the country’s history. The election of 1824 was decided by the House of Representatives, who chose second-place finisher John Quincy Adams after a possibly “corrupt bargain” between the candidate and House Speaker Henry Clay. In 1876, a bipartisan commission was formed to determine the Electoral College votes of four contested states. That commission ultimately decided to let the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, win the presidency despite receiving fewer popular votes, in return for the end of Reconstruction in the South. The 2000 election, which you’ve probably heard a lot about lately, ended up being effectively decided by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. It’s notable that no disputed election since 1824 has been decided in the House of Representatives as the Constitution says it should be, further diminishing the sense that even a close or complicated result was decided according to the rules.
Did these contested results matter for claiming a mandate to govern? Lack of legitimacy certainly loomed over the presidencies of Adams and Hayes. Both achieved some of their goals in the White House — building up national infrastructure for Adams, changes in federal policy toward Native Americans and progress toward civil service reform for Hayes. The story for George W. Bush was more complicated, partly because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks during his first year in office. I note in my research that Bush sometimes claimed a partisan mandate for policies like tax cuts in 2001 — a stark contrast with other close election winners did, including John F. Kennedy in 1960. Changes to the party system were probably part of the reason that Bush’s fate looked different from that of Hayes, whose factional rivals in his own party ensured he kept his one-term promise in 1880. Bush faced no such challenge in 2004, though it’s impossible to know whether that would have been different had the nation not been in what was then a fairly new war.
Elections matter and if you want to establish a mandate to govern, it’s better to have electoral legitimacy. But the interpretation of election results is also a matter of rhetoric, media narratives and political context. Whoever is in office on Jan. 20 will have some opportunities to shape what people think the election meant, and what it means for governing. If Trump is reelected under dubious circumstances, we should expect a steady stream of mandate rhetoric, because trying to establish electoral legitimacy will be an urgent, if fruitless, task. Biden and the Democrats have tried to frame the election as a referendum on democracy itself, and if they win, they will have to figure out what comes next. There will also undoubtedly be others pushing their own version of events. That’s standard. What’s less common is for there to be disagreement about which candidate really won. If that’s still the case after Inauguration Day, we may have bigger problems than mandates.