The Man Without A Mandate

Barack Obama is trying to do something no president has ever done: get re-elected without winning the national popular vote. If he were to somehow succeed at this, he would be the weakest elected president since Rutherford B. Hayes, and the lamest lame duck in American history.
Since popular vote totals were first recorded in 1824, four presidents have been elected while losing the popular vote (five, if you count John F. Kennedy in 1960). None were incumbents seeking re-election. And three of the four – George W. Bush in 2000, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and John Quincy Adams in 1824 (as well as JFK) – could legitimately claim a different sort of mandate upon election: while they may not have won the popular vote, their parties won or kept control of the House of Representatives, the House of Congress that – unlike the Senate and the Electoral College – represents the people in roughly equal proportion:
Bush: 47.87% of the popular vote; 221-212 House majority; Republicans won House popular vote 47.3% to 47.0%.
JFK: 49.72% of the popular vote; 262-175 House majority; Democrats won House popular vote 54.4% to 44.8%.
Harrison: 47.8% of the popular vote; 179-152 House majority.
Adams: 30.92% of the popular vote; 109-104 House majority.
Harrison and JFK also brought to office commanding majorities in the Senate (Republicans gained twelve Senate seats in 1888 for a 51-37 majority; Democrats after the 1960 election had a 64-36 majority in the Senate).
Obama, even if elected, would undoubtedly face a re-elected Republican House majority, one that quite likely will have won a majority or at least a plurality of the popular vote and will have a stronger claim to a popular mandate than the president. The only president to lose the popular vote and have his party lose the House vote in the same year was Hayes in 1876, who lost the popular vote by 3 points and faced a 155-136 Democratic majority, but was able to resolve the disputed election by means of a thoroughly corrupt backroom deal to end the post-Civil War Reconstruction of the South and otherwise trade favors to the Democrats in exchange for counting the ‘carpetbagger’ electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana for the Republicans and ignoring Democratic votes on grounds of ‘voter suppression.’ Unsurprisingly, Hayes was a famously ineffective president as a result, best known today for mediating a dispute between Paraguay and Argentina. His domestic agenda of civil service reform and civil rights protections went nowhere, and Congress overrode his veto of a major currency bill and left one of his Supreme Court appointments without a floor vote until after Hayes left office. He did not seek re-election.
Nixon in 1968 would be the closest modern analogue, winning the popular vote by 0.7% (with 43.42% of the vote) in a 3-way race while Democrats held a 243-192 House majority and won the House popular vote 50% to 48.2%. Nixon, of course, followed a resolutely liberal domestic policy the next four years, and his efforts to retain executive powers outside House Democratic control came to ultimate grief.
Turning to presidents seeking re-election, only three have been re-elected by a popular vote margin of less than 6 points: Bush in 2004 (2.46 points), Wilson in 1916 (3.12 points), and Truman in 1948 (4.48 points), and one of those three (Bush) won a majority of the popular vote (besides Truman and Wilson, Bill Clinton in 1996 is the only other president re-elected without a popular vote majority). But Truman saw his party seize majorities in both the House and Senate away from the Republicans. Bush won a popular vote majority, expanded his share of the popular vote, added 12 million votes more than he won in 2000, and saw the GOP expand its House majority to 30 seats. His second term nonetheless ended in political disaster for his party. Only Wilson, of the three, lost partisan control of the House (by one seat), but the Democrats were able to retain their majority by forming a coalition with Socialist and Progressive members. While World War I dominated Wilson’s next two years (elected on the slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War,” Wilson took the country into the war 31 days after the start of his second term), it ended in total political disaster, with Republicans blocking Wilson’s treasured League of Nations plan and the uninspiring Warren G. Harding winning the largest popular majority in American history in 1920 just by promising a “Return to Normalcy.” Democrats would not regain their House majority until 1930, the White House until 1932. None of this bodes well for Obama’s ability to govern or lead his party if he was somehow able to squeeze re-election out of the Electoral College.
Of course, there are reasons – the courts, the administrative agencies – why ideological liberals should want Obama to win, no matter how weakened his condition. But given that Obama would enter a second term as a crippled lame duck with no experience knowing how to cut bipartisan deals, you have to wonder why anyone else – viewing the challenges facing the nation the next four years – would want him to continue in office in such circumstances.

(A final note, of prediction: If the Romney-Ryan ticket wins a popular vote majority, wins Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire, and the GOP holds its House majority, but Obama improbably holds the White House on the strength of Nevada and the industrial Midwest, there will be enormous momentum within the Republican party to clear the 2016 primary field for Paul Ryan).

19 thoughts on “The Man Without A Mandate”

  1. LOL @ the concept of a mandate meaning anything to you at all. When Obama won last time and had a majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate, you didn’t say anything about Obama having a mandate.
    Speaking of the Senate, I wonder why you don’t mention the expected strength of the Democrats in that chamber after this election. And back to the House, it’s very convenient how you fail to mention the manner in which the politicization of redistricting has made most races a foregone conclusion.
    I rarely agree with you, but I’m usually impressed by your analysis. This post is so full of cherry-picked status that it truly is laughable. I do hope you’ll revisit it again when you’ve had some time to develop it more.

  2. I’m with Jimmy on this one. I have been lurking for a while (full disclosure – Dan and I were suitemates in law school decades ago) but Dan, I have to say, the antipathy that you have for our current president is usually masked in logic, data, and analysis. This latest one? Not so much.
    That’s ok – you can’t win em all – just ask the Tigers!
    All my best!

  3. Jimmy – What you’re missing, what Obama has always been missing, is that the world is not all conservatives and liberals. While you can force things through Congress on party lines, and both parties have done this at times, you still need to convince the middle of the country that it’s a good idea. And Obama will be in a very weak position to do so if he starts off a second term having lost the popular vote and sitting across the table from a Boehner whose caucus got more votes than Obama and a Ryan who was on the ticket that got more votes than Obama.

  4. Thanks for the response Crank, but I don’t think you addressed my questions at all. This began with you saying that Obama will have no mandate if he wins the electoral college but loses the popular vote. My critique of that is largely that the concept of a mandate is a nonsensical rhetorical ploy. And as evidence of that, I noted that 4 years ago, you certainly expressed no belief that Obama, who led a Democratic landslide, had a mandate then.
    Here, you again raise the issue of there being more votes going to House Republicans than House Democrats. Without an analysis of the population in each district, the competitiveness of each district, and a host of other issues that determine how many people actually vote, that is a completely irrelevant number. What is relevant is that the Republicans will certainly have a majority in the House next term. But that has nothing to do with the question of a mandate and everything to do with the practical reality that President Obama will, at least on some issues, have to work with Boehner et al. if he wants to accomplish certain things. Also, it is telling that you did not address my point that the Republican majority was largely predetermined by the politicization of redistricing. And notably absent from your analysis is the very likely probability that if Obama wins, it will be accompanied by Democratic gains in the House. A third notable omission in your response and your original post is the likely retention of control of the Senate by the Democratic Party.
    Given that the race was always going to be close, I can’t imagine there being any difference in Obama’s approach whether he wins the popular vote or not, particularly since his whole election strategy was geared towards winning the electoral college.
    Before I go, I’ve got a question for you regarding the mandate (if you’re still going to insist that such a thing is real). If Obama does win the popular vote and the Democrats control the Senate and pick up ground in the House (where there will still be a Republican majority), name one element from Obama’s shiny campaign booklet that you think Republicans should allow to become law that they would not have to allow if Obama were to win the electoral college and lose the popular vote.

  5. Obama gets my vote if he makes November the “No Ingesting Drain-O Month” in honor of the health fanatics and environmentalists.
    I SO look forward to Erick Erickson defiance of Obama’s dictatorship.

  6. Why is it when liberals lose elections it’s always some nefarious plot to prevent them from power? For Jimmy above it’s that evil redistricting; those gosh darm Republicans redrew some districts to make it safer for their incumbents, which is, of course, the exact same thing the Democrats do. So what’s the difference? Well, those evil Republicans managed to win a boatload of state legislator seats and governorships in the last election: How dastardly of them! How nefarious! Those evil plotters! Trying to win elections and all! Why, there ought to be a law to prevent such abuses…after all, as Jimmy would probably tell you, the only ‘real’ ‘true’ districts are the ones that elect liberals! This is fun.

  7. Jimmy and Crank –
    The left spent an inordinate amount of time trying to delegitimize GWBush after the Florida “recount”. The problem that always existed with Florida and its liberal supreme court was that with a Florida legislature that was Republican – that in what was a question of doubt, that legislature was going to give the electoral votes to Bush. As is stated in the constitution.
    So, you think that if there was a large percentage win on the popular vote, not the half a percent, for a Romney ticket, that would mean that Obama would have a mandate? Hardly. Turnabout is fair play and all that. Not that I expect Obambi to win – but he’s such a fascist that we will continue to oppose him.
    Oh, and you can thank Joe “Balls as big as cue balls” for that too – he and Kennedy started the whole destroy the opposition back in Reagan’s term.
    I look forward to the release of the information that shows that Obambi allowed those men to die, after President Romney begins the cleansing of the Augean Stables…

  8. @The Dude: It makes for much better discussions if you don’t make up things about what other people are saying. Where did I say that only Republicans have overpoliticized redistricting. It has become commonplace and it just so happens that Republicans controlled more state legislatures when it was time to redistrict after the last census. If you accept that state legislators are designing districts to ensure their party maximizes control and take into account the fact that more Republicans than Democrats control state legislatures, then it does, I think raise questions about Crank’s argument that a Republican majority in Congress actually sends a meaningful message to Obama.
    @deadite: I can’t really respond to what you’re saying because I genuinely don’t know what the hell you’re talking about as it pertains to the discussion I’m trying to have with Crank.

  9. Your argument falls apart as soon as you mention that John Kennedy earned a mandate by virtue of a House majority of 262- 175 with 54.4% of the vote for the House. In 1958, the Democrat majority was 283-153 and the vote percentage favored the Democrats 55.5 – 43.6. In the “mandate of 1960”, Kennedy lost 21 seats and reduced the Democratic margin in the popular vote. (There may be more factual inaccuracies in your article. I stopped reading after reading about the Kennedy “mandate”.)

  10. In 2008 Obama had a mandate for hope and change. What that means as policy is anybody’s guess.
    Besides, in 2008 mandate wasn’t in question because it was obvious: Obama owned Congress, the press and the people (by 7 ppts). It’s nobody’s fault but Obama’s that he wasted it. Your argument isn’t with the post, your argument is with the people that are renouncing their 2008 vote. Obama wins if he just holds onto what he had (because first time voters will surely vote for Obama over Romney).

  11. Absolutely nothing Jimmy or Gerard say disproves the main point of the column: if re-elected while losing the popular vote, Obama’s going to be a lame duck of a 2nd term President.
    He does indeed have no history of cutting bipartisan deals. Facing a House and likely a Senate even more Republican than they were after the 2010 midterms will not strengthen Obama’s position when it comes to getting things done.

  12. I’m getting a new computer but don’t want to lose my Firefox bookmarks. Is there an easy way to save a record of all the URLs in my Bookmarks and then quickly upload them to Firefox on my new computer?.

  13. @Brian Cates: Given that your argument relies on the fallacy that the House and Senate are going to be more Republican next term (virtually every poll expects Dem pickups in both chambers), what does that do to your conclusion?

  14. Also, to Crank and anyone else on the East Coast, my thoughts are with you. Hope all are okay.

  15. If Obama wins re-election, he will be impeached.
    Most definitely by the House. Yes, if Repubs do not win the Senate, Obama will not be convicted, but he will be impeached by the US House.

  16. This seems like nothing more than a traffic grab that panders to the right and incites the left into action (commenting.)
    Sloppy, quickly composed, devoid of facts (attempts at them, sure).

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