Mitt Romney and President Obama want a strong mandate from voters to support their governing approach. They won't get it. Given the enormity of America's challenges, it might not be such a bad thing if the winner of this election emerged with humility instead of hubris.
President Obama and Governor Romney both want a mandate – an election result showing that the voters strongly support what he wants to do in the next four years. The one certainty about this election is that neither man will get one.
To have clear title to a mandate, the winning side must accomplish three things. The first is to lay out a specific policy agenda. An incoming president can hardly assert that the election was a mandate for proposals that the electorate never heard about. The second is to win a big majority of the popular vote, at least 55 percent. And the third is to gain decisive majorities in Congress.
Yet it’s already clear – based on campaign messages, polling, and congressional redistricting – that the winner will meet none of these conditions.
Both candidates have been hazy about the nation’s harsh fiscal choices. When critics faulted Mr. Obama for lacking a second-term agenda, his campaign responded with a glossy brochure of things he’s already tried. Its message seemed to be that the road to a balanced budget is paved with attractive photographs. Mr. Romney talked about limiting some tax preferences, but never got around to naming which ones he meant.
Unless the polls are wrong, the winner will have a thin margin in the popular vote. In fact, as in the 2000 election of George W. Bush, the loser of the popular vote may prevail in the Electoral College.
As for Congress, Republicans have a virtual lock on the House of Representatives, so a reelected President Obama would confront at least one chamber whose leaders oppose him. On the Senate side, a President Romney would face either a Democratic majority or a narrow GOP majority subject to Democratic filibuster.