Assessing Trump’s Mandate—A Sober Analysis

Both supporters and opponents of Trump’s campaign want to know what kind of mandate the election results mean for his Presidency and for questions about the political capital he may have over time. So, what do the election results say in general? What implications do they have, in finer detail, for his proposed changes in the national security space?

I. A Mandate?

The popular vote

On the one hand, as some have pointed out, Trump “ran second in the popular vote.” And that sobering fact may be an important reminder in the months and years ahead. On the other hand, the difference in the popular vote was razor thin—less than half a percentage point. [Update: on the final tally, Clinton bested Trump by almost 3 million votes (more than 2 percentage points).] Plus the candidates were not ultimately competing for the popular vote. The rules of the game for winning the White House meant Trump, for example, had no great reason to drive up his vote share in places like Texas. Some might reasonably say, however, that Clinton had more highly populated areas of the country (California and New York) from where she could easily have driven up her share of the popular vote—through campaigning or Election Day organizing—had that been the competition instead of the quest for the Electoral College. If that’s correct, the upshot is that the razor thin margin in the actual results masks a much more significant percentage of the national population in her favor.

The Electoral College

On the one hand, Trump did so well that, as of this writing, Michigan’s outcome is still not final—and it doesn’t matter. Trump had more than enough electoral votes without it. On the other hand, he won a number of important states by such slim margins (less than 1.5 points in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). That said, he was just shy of winning three other states by a similar margin (Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire). In sum, it is hard to deny, especially for those of us who stayed up late, this was close. Nate Silver has an insightful piece over at 538, where he shows how the Electoral College would have dramatically turned out the opposite way if just 1 out of every 100 voters changed from Trump to Clinton.

Reflections from House and Senate races

The same electorate that handed Mr. Trump the White House also left both chambers of Congress in the hands of his party. But what exactly does that say about his mandate? Aggregating votes for the Senate is even less reflective of the popular vote than the Electoral College. Plus it would be foolhardy to think that the scale of Republican control of the House these days reflects the national population. Due to the concentration of Democrats in major cities and how districts are designed, although the GOP has held a majority in the House in the past, more people voted for Democratic House candidates. In 2012, Democratic House candidates received 1.4 million more votes than Republicans nationwide, but the GOP kept control of the House 234-201 (see interview with David Daley at Vox, and Politico’s Bill Scher). Incumbents then become hard to remove. Based on my calculations of the totals in each district, on November 8, the GOP won 55% of the House seats, but Republican candidates for the House won barely 50% of the votes cast.

And, of course, this was not the usual election by any measure. Many Republicans running for Congress tried to distance themselves from Trump. So a vote for them might not have even been in support of Trump’s mandate, and, in some cases, could even have been to keep him in check.

II. A Mandate for What?

Proposed policies

To have a mandate a candidate must have put forth proposals on which he or she can say the electorate made its decision. Three points are important to keep in mind on this front. First is the obvious one that candidate Trump was mighty ambiguous about what exactly he would do. Second, let’s remember that Trump and his team narrowed, rescinded, and disavowed some of his most extreme positions—including the Muslim ban. And on mass deportation, in October, the NY Times noted that “Mr. Trump recently softened his position on immigration, forgoing his calls for mass deportation in favor of a focus on ‘criminal aliens.’” Third, it is important to keep the second point in mind as progressive groups publicize the harshest policies Trump espoused earlier in the campaign in an effort to rally support for their causes and as far right groups publicize the same in an effort to pressure the Trump administration to follow through on those earlier statements.

What the people (exit polls) said

As others have noted, a sizeable majority of voters, according to exit polls, rejected proposals that had been associated with Trump. A majority (54%) opposed  building a wall on the Mexican border (41% supported it). A supermajority (70%) supported offering legal status to “illegal immigrants working in the U.S.” (25% instead supported deporting them). Here’s an even more vivid way of breaking down the results: a majority of Trump’s own voters (53%) supported a path to legal status! Finally, here’s another stunning statistic from the exit polls: 57% of Americans said they would feel negative if Trump won, and 17% of Trump’s own supporters said they would feel negative if he won.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza drew the following from the exit poll data:

Trump’s victory should be in no way interpreted as a vote of confidence in him or his capacity to do the job. Less than 4 in 10 voters (38 percent) had a favorable opinion of him. Only 1 in 3 said he was “honest and trustworthy.” Thirty-eight percent said he was “qualified” to be president. Thirty-five percent said he has the “temperament to serve effectively as president.”
How can a candidate win with numbers like these? Because the desire for change was so great that it overrode all of the doubts — or at least many of the doubts — people had about Trump.

All that said, in fairness, there is one specific policy area in which Trump might have more of a mandate. A majority of Americans (52%) said that the fight against ISIL is going badly. Agree with them or not (I don’t), it would be hard to imagine those individuals would not support more aggressive military action against ISIL—though not necessarily of the extreme kind that Trump has proposed and not necessarily if military experts convinced them that current operations are on pace to decimate the group as we know it.

* * *

As the competition and contrasts with Clinton recede and Americans begin to focus solely on their new President, Mr. Trump will enter office with a lot and a little. A little, given all the data described above in terms of support for him and his initiatives. A lot, because his win is due to widespread hunger among Americans for fundamental change. Andrew Sullivan wrote: “He has won this campaign in such a decisive fashion that he owes no one anything.” I don’t agree. It would be nice to think Trump is free to carve a path absent constraints of what some of his supporters wanted. But, Trump did not win in as a decisive a fashion as Sullivan suggests. And ironically he won in a fashion that he is beholden not to pass the more extreme policies that he once advocated and that a majority of Americans oppose.

Image:113th U.S. Congress House districts, Mr. Matté – Wiki Commons 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.