Forget the Republican Mandate

Why the president could govern with the midterm election’s nonvoters in mind.​

Democrats lost the US Senate Majority.

President Obama walks away after his news conference in the White House a day after Democrats lost the Senate majority, Nov. 5, 2014. But this week’s election likely won’t define the end of Obama’s presidency.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, says the people have spoken. “The American people were given a choice to either accept the policies of the Democrat Party and the president or reject them,” Priebus declared at a press conference Wednesday. “And they wholeheartedly rejected those policies.” He continued:

It wasn’t just a rejection of Barack Obama. It was the embrace of the values of conservative governing. So I think that what is really necessary is for the president to come down to Capitol Hill and look through Harry Reid’s desk and figure out what of the 370 bills [passed by Republicans] he’s ready to work on. I don’t believe it’s incumbent on the Republicans to suddenly capitulate on something that the American people have been very loud and clear on, that they’re not buying what the president’s selling.

That’s the textbook theory of democracy: Elections deliver mandates. Politicians have to obey what the voters just said. But the theory is wrong. Politicians who remain in office don’t have to heed the last election. They just have to win the next one. And the electorate of 2016 could be very different from the electorate of 2014.

In short, Democrats don’t have to spend the next two years sucking up to Republicans. They can focus instead on an agenda that will broaden the electorate on the left.

Ordinarily, this is dangerous. The further you move toward the fringe, the more you alienate the center. But Democrats have evidence that a mobilization strategy can pay off. In 2008 and 2012, they won by attracting millions of young, black, and Latino voters. In 2010 and 2014, with no presidential race on the ballot, many of those voters stayed home. 2016 is a presidential year, and the country will be less white than ever. The electorate could look more like the one from 2012 than like the one from 2014.

Latinos are an obvious example. In 2012 they accounted for 10 percent of the electorate. In 2014 they dropped to 8 percent. On Wednesday liberal and Latino groups released a survey of registered Latino voters, taken just before the election, in which some respondents said they weren’t going to vote. The nonvoters leaned Democratic by a wide margin. But when compared with those who planned to vote, they were significantly less likely to say that Democrats cared about Hispanics. “We think that these nonvoters can become voters in 2016,” said pollster Matt Barreto, who led the survey. “Many of these folks have presidential vote history. They participated in 2012. They participated in 2008.”

In his post-election press conference, Obama sent these 2014 nonvoters a signal:

To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too. All of us have to give more Americans a reason to feel like the ground is stable beneath their feet, that the future is secure, that there’s a path for young people to succeed, and that folks here in Washington are concerned about them.

I hear you, too. That’s not what most of us learned in school. Our teachers said that if you want to be heard, you have to vote. But the president of the United States says otherwise.

Reporters at the press conference were taken aback by Obama’s attitude. They told him that according to Republicans, “the election was a referendum, at least in part, on your intentions to use executive authority” to legalize undocumented workers. They quoted Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate majority leader, who had just warned Obama that taking such executive action would amount to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” But Obama held firm:

I have no doubt that there will be some Republicans who are angered or frustrated by any executive action that I may take. Those are folks, I just have to say, who are also deeply opposed to immigration reform in any form … My executive actions not only do not prevent [Republicans] from passing a law that supersedes those actions, but should be a spur for them to actually try to get something done. … I think we should have further broad-based debate among the American people.

Essentially, Obama was describing a political calculation. Many Republicans will never budge. By further antagonizing them, he loses nothing. On the other hand, he can pick up support in the middle and on the left—and can pressure Republicans to pass a bill—by expanding the conversation to the two-thirds of voters who stayed home. The Latino survey backs him up. It says that by a margin of 68 percent to 15 percent, registered Latino voters who skipped the midterms would be more enthusiastic about the Democratic Party if Obama issued “an executive order stopping the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants” and gave them “work permits and temporary legal status.”

Is Obama’s calculation correct? We won’t know till 2016. And that’s the point. The turnout of 2014 has narrowed his legislative options by filling Congress with Republicans. But as an index of public opinion, it settles nothing.

Priebus knows this, too. That’s why, in his press conference, he repeatedly framed the 2014 bloodbath as a mandate not just against Obama but against Hillary Clinton, who wasn’t on the ballot, even though the RNC constantly insists she was. It’s also why Priebus bragged about the RNC’s “strategic decision to prioritize low-propensity voters” and thereby “expand the electorate.” In a pre-election memo to the press, the RNC explained:

These are voters that our data analytics say agree with us on the issues, but they might not vote without extra encouragement and contact. In all Senate target states, hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteers have so far identified a total of 2,450,747 low propensity voters to engage early and often.

In other words, the GOP’s recipe for winning in 2014 was to do exactly what Obama thinks Democrats can do in 2016: fatten the electorate with sympathizers who didn’t vote last time.

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner chastised Obama for ignoring the election results. “The American people made it clear on Election Day [that] they don’t want the president acting on a unilateral basis,” Boehner said. Obama’s job now, according to Boehner, is “rebuilding trust not only with the American people, but with the American people’s representatives here in the United States Congress.”

The American people’s representatives? In the five presidential-year general elections for which the government has tabulated votes by party—that includes presidential, Senate, and House races—Republicans trail Democrats by more than 50 million votes. Republicans eked out a plurality just once, by 2 million, and their highest total ever is 17 million less than the Democrats’ best performance. House Republicans, the guys Boehner touts as “the American people’s representatives,” are a miracle of gerrymandering. They lost the 2012 popular vote by nearly 2 million ballots.

Obama thinks there’s an army of voters out there who stayed home Tuesday but can swamp Boehner’s troops. And he’s right.