THE overturning of the Democratic Party's control of both chambers of the US Congress last week was a loud signal from the American voters.
But what were they signaling?
And which voters?
The preelection line that the vote was a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment washed out election night. The electorate dispensed only with Democratic incumbents, while not a single Republican was turned out of the House, the Senate, or a governorship.
The often-heard analysis that this was an issueless set of campaigns was put to rest by President Clinton himself the day after the election, when he concluded that voters were calling for a smaller government, among other things.
But to tune the election mandate much finer than that invites fuzziness.
Since most Republican candidates for the House had signed a ``Contract with America'' that committed them to bringing 10 specific bills to the House floor within the first 100 days of Republican control, the GOP already had an off-the-shelf mandate. The Republican sweep might be taken as a voter endorsement of the Contract.
But just a week before the election, some polls showed that as many as 75 percent of the voters did not know what the Republican Contract was or what was in it.
In fact, it contains bills that range from congressional term limits to tax cuts to welfare reform to a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget.
The Contract leaves much out. House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and probable Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas have already moved beyond the Contract to endorse a vote next year on allowing voluntary prayer in public schools.
This is the kind of social issue that begins to leave some Republican suburban constituents behind. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a spokeswoman of the Northern - more centrist - branch of the Republican Party, is warning the GOP not to put the more divisive social issues ahead of widely endorsed ones that involve cutting the size and cost of government.
But different voters have different mandates in mind when they fill out their ballots.
One voter in 5 describes him or herself as a ``white, born-again Christian.''
And according to exit polls by Mitofsky International, three out of 4 of them voted Republican in House elections this year, a higher proportion than in previous years. These voters often put a high priority on a conservative social agenda.
Men and women were divided by party votes. Men split 54 percent Republican and 46 percent Democratic.
Women were exactly the reverse. Men under age 30, however, gave a slight majority to the Democrats, though not as large a majority as young women did.
Some of the biggest Republican margins came from white voters in the Midwest and South, as well as from those voters who feel their standard of living is worsening. A far greater predictor of a Republican vote, however, was disapproval of Mr Clinton's job performance.