By Niall Stanage - 09-04-16 10:30 AM EDT
Hillary Clinton could win a decisive victory in November and still enter office without much of a mandate to govern, at least in the eyes of her Republican critics.
While she has succeeded so far in making the election a referendum on her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the strategy carries pitfalls. Should she triumph, it could easily be seen as a rejection of the businessman rather than as an endorsement of her policies.
Republicans are already pointing to that dynamic to make the case that they will be on firm ground resisting her agenda, even if she wins the election handily.
"It is hard to believe that Hillary Clinton would have a mandate should she win the election, because the referendum seems to be on whether Donald Trump is fit to be president, not whether Clinton is the right choice," said longtime Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
"Combined with her high negatives and the problems she has with her trust and credibility with a majority of Americans, I think Republicans would feel emboldened to stand up to her on policy issues."
Polls show an unusually high number of would-be Clinton voters are principally motivated by a desire to keep Trump away from the Oval Office.
A nationwide Washington Post/ABC News poll last month asked registered voters who intended to back Clinton whether their decision was based more on support for her or opposition to Trump. The split was almost even, with 47 percent saying they wanted to keep Trump out and 49 percent actively wanting to put Clinton in office.
Those figures can't be fully explained by the partisan tenor of the times. Back in 2012, exit polls indicated that 65 percent of those who voted for either President Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, strongly favored their candidate, while only 10 percent said their vote was determined by their dislike for the opponent.
The general distaste for Clinton among voters is part of the same picture. A nationwide Marist poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal last month found that the Democratic nominee was viewed unfavorably by 55 percent of registered voters and favorably by only 42 percent.
Despite all this, however, Clinton has a significant lead in polls nationally and in battleground states. Data and forecasting site FiveThirtyEight, for example, currently gives Clinton a 71.5 percent chance of prevailing and projects her to win around 313 Electoral College votes. Only 270 are needed for victory.
Clinton supporters say a result such as that would axiomatically give her a strong mandate.
"If she wins in a landslide, of course there will be a mandate," said one Clinton surrogate. "I'm sure some will say she won because this was a referendum on Trump, but I don't buy that. You can't discount a big win, particularly if she wins traditional red states."
Clinton is making a push for some of those red states. Her campaign recently opened a field office in Utah, which has not been carried by a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964.
There are other methods to boost Clinton's leverage, independent experts say. One would be to focus on congressional races. Big Democratic gains in the House and Senate could bolster a sense that the electorate had given a thumbs-up to liberal policies rather than just a thumbs-down to Trump.
In that scenario, "she will have the capacity to say that local-level people voted and sent Democrats to Congress," said Patricia Conley, a political science lecturer at the University of Chicago and the author of the 1994 book "Presidential Mandates."
"I think that's why the Republicans in Congress are worried. A win just for her is not going to convince [Speaker] Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] to go along with what she wants to do."
Some Democrats point to the idea that a big win from Clinton would, by its nature, come with support from a broad enough cross-section of the electorate as to give her a true mandate.
"The demographic support will be overwhelming - people of color, millennials, women," said Chris Lehane, who worked in Bill Clinton's White House and on Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "Anyone in office looking to where the country is going will understand that this election was a clear signal."
But others caution that, in a nation so polarized, the effect of any near-landslide is likely to be fleeting.
"In the case of [President Lyndon] Johnson in 1964, lots of people voted for him because they thought his opponent [Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater] was unqualified and dangerous," said Marquette University's Julia Azari, the author of a book on electoral mandates. "That didn't matter initially, but that kind of oversized coalition is not very stable. It would be the same thing for Clinton."
Republicans, meanwhile, are girding themselves for battle.
Given Clinton's high unfavorable ratings, Bonjean said that if she won, "she is going to be limping into office as a weak - most likely one-term - president. Republicans would not feel any pressure whatsoever to go along with liberal or left-wing policies."
- Amie Parnes contributed.