The New Referendum
"LET him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him," Woodrow Wilson wrote long before he became president. His words, now part of American political folklore, celebrate the power of the president as the voice of the people, holder of the nation's number-one democratic office. Presidents are the only ones (along with their vice presidents) elected from a national constituency. So, when proposing policies and making decisions, they can use their elections as grounds to speak for all the nation. The larger the electoral margin—the mandate—the more presidents have been able to claim they had the people behind them in whatever they sought to do.
However, with the advent of modem public-opinion polling, this democratic basis has changed. Presidents no longer govern for four years on the strength of one election; today, the electoral mandate is continually updated and reviewed by public-opinion polls. Consequently, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, reelected by landslide margins in 1964 and 1972, respectively, found their power—that is, their claim to be the voice of the people— undercut when polls showed they had lost substantial support.