In his masterly book "Tides of Consent," political scientist James Stimson explains that voters usually put a party in power to realize moderate change in a particular direction. However, once in office, parties regularly overstep their mandates, going further than the public wanted. Other times, parties fail to realize the reforms they were voted in to accomplish or pursue a number of much less popular policies.
The Democrats already seem poised to badly misread the 2020 election, and it will likely come back to haunt them — sooner rather than later.
As a result, the public tends to grow increasingly alienated from the regime it ushered into power, leading to shifts in favor of the opposition in subsequent elections. This is why enduring majorities don't really happen in modern American politics: Voters are chronically faced with two choices, both of which resonate with them on some levels and alienate them on others. And once in power, for various reasons, parties often pursue the least popular parts of their agendas over those that have the broadest support.
The more a party misperceives its mandate, the more pronounced a backlash it is likely to receive. Unfortunately, the Democrats already seem poised to badly misread the 2020 election, and it will likely come back to haunt them — sooner rather than later.
In a post-election news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared that voters gave Democrats a "tremendous mandate ... a bigger mandate than John F. Kennedy when I was in school, and a bigger mandate than others."
A centerpiece of these narratives is the claim that President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris won more votes than any other ticket in U.S. history. So far, more than 77.7 million votes had been counted for the Democratic ticket, with some final votes left to count. This does, indeed, surpass the previous record, set by Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, of 69.5 million votes.
However, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence also beat Obama's record by a healthy margin this cycle, pulling in 72.4 million votes to date, with their numbers also expected to climb. The electoral results do not show that the public is united behind Biden and Harris. Quite the contrary — they show that voters are deeply divided.
About 31.1 percent of voting-age Americans are expected to have cast their ballots for Biden when all is said and done. This is very far from a majority. Nor is it a historic level of support. Lyndon B. Johnson set the record in 1964, pulling in 38 percent of all voting-age adults. And contrary to Pelosi's assertions, Kennedy also pulled in a larger share of the electorate than Biden and Harris are projected to win (31.8 percent) — as did Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The record in terms of sheer number of votes that the Democratic presidential ticket got is a product of population growth. When we control for the size of the electorate, it is clear that the incoming administration does not have an unprecedented mandate.
Indeed, even as Democrats won the White House, they are trending to remain the minority in the Senate. Among other things, this will severely constrain their ability to rebalance the judiciary — meaning federal courts (not to mention the Supreme Court) will likely remain skewed to the right for the foreseeable future.
Democrats have also lost seats in the House, a situation that is only likely to worsen in the next midterm elections. When a party takes power, it loses about 35 seats on average in its inaugural midterms, which could flip the House to the GOP in 2022.
The state-level results tell a similarly depressing story. Democrats failed to flip any governorships, while Republicans gained one. Democrats so far have not been able to flip control of any state legislatures, while Republicans took both chambers in New Hampshire. This control over most governorships and state legislatures will give Republicans a significant advantage as we head into the post-2020 census redistricting cycle: The GOP will be able to draw electoral maps in ways that advantage Republicans for years to come.
Many on the left have struggled with this apparent contradiction: Although Democrats are trending to have won the presidency by more than 5 million votes, the party looks like it will end up in a weaker position overall than before the election with respect to the other branches and levels of government — because many who elected Biden for president nonetheless supported GOP candidates down the ballot.
In truth, these results are pretty easy to understand. The public did not embrace Democrats this cycle; it merely evicted Trump. Indeed, although Biden's victory was not historic, Trump's defeat was; when a party initially takes control of the White House, it tends to stay in power for at least eight years. Going all the way back to the Civil War and the creation of the Democratic and Republican parties, the only true exception to this rule was the administration of Jimmy Carter. Until now.
Although Biden's victory was not historic, Trump's defeat was; when a party initially takes control of the White House, it tends to stay in power for at least eight years.
Independents and moderates played a central role in evicting Trump from the White House. In 2012, Republicans won 50 percent of independents. In 2016, that was trimmed to 48 percent, then 42 percent in 2018 to 41 percent today. Republican erosion among independents was probably critical to flipping states such as Arizona, where nearly a third of all voters are registered independents.
A similar story holds for moderates: 41 percent voted Republican in 2016, 36 percent in 2018 and only 34 percent this year. However, precisely because these voters are not committed partisans, many seem to have voted for some down-ballot Republicans even while casting their presidential votes for Democrats.
Stimson's "Tides of Consent" shows that dire consequences usually follow when a party misreads its electoral mandate. And in this election, voters did not rally around the Democratic Party and its agenda. Mainly, they just rejected Trump.