What is a mandate? The popular understanding, in electoral terms, is an overwhelming victory with a clear message sent from the voters to act on certain issues as articulated during the campaign.
The GOP, and its media supporters, seem to think that Tuesday’s results were a mandate to roll back health care reform and stop any progressive agenda item that the president might be still thinking about pursuing.
Let me state up front that I’m not trying to whitewash what happened on Tuesday. The president was right to call it a “shellacking.” Under the electoral rules we have in the United States, the numbers appeared to be a stark rejection of the Democrats. But were they?
I haven’t seen anyone else add up the national numbers, so I spent a few hours totaling the nationwide votes for the House, Senate and governors. What I found was surprising.
The clearest victory for the Republicans was in the House of Representatives, where they won at least 240 seats, with the possibility of another 10 in still undecided races. But what was the percentage of votes won in the House races? The GOP won 52.65% of the vote where there was more than one candidate on the ballot.
In the Senate, the Republicans won a staggering 50.3% of the vote. Most of the Republican victories were in low population states which get the same number of senators as the larger states. So, even though the GOP reaped 24 seats, to the Democrats’ 13, the vote tallies tell a very different story.
The gubernatorial votes present an even more underwhelming case for a GOP mandate. The cumulative vote total in the races for governor gave the Republicans 49.2%, with 47.5% for the Democrats. The balance was for third party and independent candidates.
So what can we learn from these numbers?
First, we need to recognize that this is the system we are living in. This is not a parliamentary or proportional representation system. If it were, Democrats would have about 19 more House seats and about 3 more in the Senate. But in our federal system, where your votes come from is sometimes just as important as how many votes you get.
That means we need to revisit Gov. Dean’s 50 State Strategy if we are going to win nationally. We need to organize in traditionally Red states and communities in order to counter the effects of gerrymandering and the disproportionate power of small states in the Senate. If we had turned out more of our voters in our base communities, we might have made a difference in close statewide races but it wouldn’t have helped in winning more House seats.
For example, in Pennsylvania where I live, turning out more people in Philadelphia would have helped Sestak beat Toomey in the US Senate race, but wouldn’t have given us any more House victories. But if we had gotten 100,000 more votes in suburban and rural Pennsylvania we could have won the Sestak race and five swing House seats.
The most important message from these numbers is to recognize how slim the Republican victory really was. This was not a landslide as the percentages show. This was not a mandate, because the issues that the GOP ran on (healthcare, immigration, etc.) barely registered in the minds of the voters.
Democrats came pretty damn close despite the worst economy since the Great Depression, despite billions of dollars being contributed anonymously by corporations and their owners thanks to Citizens United, and despite a Democratic leadership seemingly intent on discouraging the base. That bodes well for progressives in coming election cycles.
In 1980, Ted Kennedy failed in his attempt to win the Democratic nomination for president, trying to push the party back to the left. At the Democratic Convention, he gave one of his most eloquent speeches, which included this memorable line. "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
Let that be our motto for the next two years and we will have an opportunity to win back everything we lost on Tuesday and continue our quest to build a permanent progressive political majority.