Innovative Midterm Elections
DAVID R. MAYHEW1
For a party out of the White House, there is an age-old way to conduct midterm elections: Talk retrospective and make vague promises. The Republicans' "Had Enough?" campaign against the Truman administration in 1946 is a classic instance. In midterms, a retrospective focus makes sense because it is so inviting to blame everything on an incumbent president's two-year record. Vagueness helps along a "coalition-of-disaffected-minorities" strategy at a time when not having presidential candidates on the ballot lets House and Senate candidates run on local issues; what works in Alabama may not work in Rhode Island.
All the more surprising, then, that the Republicans of 1994 should present a campaign appeal--the Contract with America--that was both prospective and specific. For a congressional party, it broke new ground to commit hundreds of candidates to an action program and then use that program as respectively a campaign theme, a lens for interpreting the election outcome and a centerpiece for a "hundred-days" legislative drive. Many presidential candidates have acted out this familiar mandate scenario--consider Ronald Reagan's use of the Kemp-Roth tax cut plan in the 1980 campaign and subsequently in his 1981 budget--as have U.S. national parties more generally by writing platforms every four years and then sometimes paying attention to them after winning. But it was a first for a congressional party--more specifically, for just a House- of-Representatives party.
Of course, election mandates are largely a matter of social construction ( Hershey 1992): Who can be sure what voters intend when they vote or if their individual intentions can be successfully added up? But being socially constructed does not make a mandate any the less consequential. Believable electoral connections can be immensely consequential, as is evident in the records of William Gladstone, Woodrow Wilson, and others who pioneered in the genre of election programs and their governmental use. Perceived mandates can legitimize. Partly because presidents discovered this fact, the twentieth century presidency shot ahead of Congress in power. An intriguing question is whether congressional "contracts" like Newt Gingrich's, played out into the future, could serve as something of an institutional equalizer. Congress to president: "My mandate and hundred days are better than yours." Is this a possible future? We should stay tuned.