Divining a “Trump mandate”

by Eastin Johnson

February 22, 2017

Cover Photo Credits

As a new presidential administration begins its tenure, much doubt and rancor permeates our politics.  A general principle of democratic governance is that electoral victory translates into a mandate to govern.  A mandate refers to the bestowal of legitimacy and authority, as well as to the message and preferences expressed by the public.  During the interim, from election night to inauguration, Trump and his surrogates have claimed a mandate to govern.  This mandate, according to them, comes from a “landslide” victory.  Understandably, this claim omits clear caveats such as Trumps loss of the popular vote and a vote share just over 46%.  Furthermore, according to a recent Fox News poll, Trump remains underwater in favorability (55% unfavorable to 42% favorable), with the outgoing President Obama viewed positively by 6 in 10 voters.  Despite all this, President Trump will now govern a nation divided.

In his inauguration speech, Donald Trump promised the American people “I will never let you down.”  This is a tall order, as his past promises and opinions often don’t align with that of the public.  Immediately following his inauguration, the Trump administration removed a White House website page on climate change and replaced it with a page promising to drill more oil.  Trump has also promised to bring coal jobs back.  According to a recent Pew Poll, solar and wind energy is very popular with the public (upwards of 80%) while efforts to promote fossil fuels, especially coal, are opposed by a majority of the American public.  According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 68% of voters are concerned about climate change and oppose potential efforts by Trump to remove regulations aimed at mitigating climate change. In the same poll, solid majorities also oppose Trump’s border wall, support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and support the right to abortion enshrined by Roe v. Wade.

There is also an unusual question begged by the parallel victories of congressional Republicans and Donald Trump: on the many issues on which Trump deviated from party orthodoxy, which way ought the party to go?  Republicans arguing for free trade won alongside their trade-skeptic standard-bearer.  Did the country clamor for a hawkish foreign policy, or a new isolationism?  If economic growth fails to rein in the deficit, will entitlements end up on the chopping block?

Another problem is one that generally applies to all incoming presidents.  Elections may send clear signals in a very broad, and practically limited, way.  Larger sentiments don’t provide clarity on the corresponding specifics.  A poignant comedic take on this general idea is an SNL skit parodying the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in the Speakership of John Boehner, for sending a message devoid of detail.  This also applies to the ongoing saga around the Affordable Care Act.  In his first day in office, President Trump signed an executive order making it official policy to hastily repeal Obamacare.  This was done despite overwhelming bipartisan support for key provisions of the law and with only 39% of the public supporting repeal, according to a recent Pew poll.  An election without a clear alternative offered to Obamacare further undermines any claim of a mandate for repeal because voters couldn’t compare particulars.

Donald Trump proved masterful at pithy sloganeering.  This effective campaign art, however, makes the job of deciphering the meaning of his victory all the more challenging. The news cycles seldom dealt with policy specifics, and Donald Trump largely ran a base rousing primary campaign all the way through the general election.  Indeed, it seemed odd to many to go on a “victory tour” after the election, rather than seeking reconciliation and offering overtures to the many concerned citizens he is now responsible for.

Many also voted for Trump for reasons apart from their policy preferences.  Many voted out of disdain for Secretary Clinton.  Some conservatives reluctantly fell in line to guard against a liberal supreme court.  Leadership ability, likeability, and other personal factors always play a role in elections.  These are important traits but they can obscure the policy preferences of the electorate.

There are many ways to try and align public opinion with election outcomes and policy particulars to a greater degree.  Despite this, the problem of information asymmetry is inevitable and the only real solution is for leaders to be cognizant and to act appropriately given the mood of the country.  Understanding and respecting the limits of an electoral mandate is essential.  All too often, election winners hide behind the notion of a mandate while ignoring public opinion.  Public opinion is no panacea (all too often it is the opposite), but it does lend credibility to a position and should thus be claimed accurately.  Trump by definition has a mandate to govern; but, he should take heed at the limited appeal of his message when deciding how to govern.  He may be a far better President for doing so.

Eastin Johnson is a 1st year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and is an Associate Editor for the William & Mary Policy Review.