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The Risks of Hillary Clinton Winning by Too Much

An expanded coalition creates an expectation that a candidate will be able to deliver on a wide range of promises to a wide range of supporters. It’s inevitable that many of them will end up feeling forgotten.

By Seth Masket


Hillary Clinton waves after she addressed the 95th Representative Assembly of the National Education Association on July 5, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In just the last two weeks, Hillary Clinton has gone from being a competitor in a tight presidential race to the odds-on favorite for a substantial win over Donald Trump. But if things continue as they’ve been going, she faces another risk—that of winning too big.

It’s admittedly an odd concept. Politicians are famously “unsafe at any margin” — they’re constantly worried about losing and want as big a victory margin as possible. Not only does a large victory relieve many anxieties, but it helps them claim a mandate from the electorate in trying to implement their policies once in office.

But large victory margins carry their own disappointments. In many ways, the ideal victory is the minimal winning coalition — just the bare majority necessary to win office. Why? Because an expanded coalition requires a candidate to be more things to more people. It creates an expectation that he or she will be able to deliver on a large array of promises to a very wide range of supporters.

As of last week, Clinton had secured some rare public endorsements from a former Central Intelligence Agency director, two Republican members of the House of Representatives, and some high level staffers to Republican presidential candidates. All this has occurred at roughly the same time that Senator Bernie Sanders and the vast majority of his supporters have moved into Clinton’s camp.

Sitting in the White House with disappointed supporters is still probably better than sitting in an office building with taco salads and unsold Trump vodka.

Suffice it to say that if Representatives Jim McDermott (with an ideal point of -0.657) and Richard Hanna (with an ideal point of 0.480) are in your coalition, someone is going to be disappointed when you actually start governing. It’s great to win big, but when some of your supporters are excited about your commitment to balanced budgets and others are motivated by your support for debt-free college education, at least some of the people who backed you are going to be disappointed and angry.

A similar fate befell Barack Obama when he won the presidency in 2008 by a seven-point margin, a relative landslide for a presidential election with no incumbent. He’d been backed by everyone from hardcore leftists to Colin Powell. But this broad support quickly turned to disappointment when Obama took office and had to decide which campaign promises to prioritize and how to deal with the catastrophic economic situation of the time. His approval ratings, which have been remarkably stable during much of his presidency, plummeted by 15 points in his first year in office.

Lyndon Johnson won an enormous electoral landslide in 1964, beating Barry Goldwater by 22 points, and giving Democrats control of 295 House seats and 68 Senate seats. That large victory gave him many big legislative wins in 1965, including passage of the Voting Rights Act and the creation of Medicare. But that was the high water mark of his presidency. Liberals and moderates abandoned him over the Vietnam War and other issues. Democrats took a bath in the 1966 mid-term elections, and Johnson chose not to run for re-election In 1968 rather than face humiliation at the polls.

Clinton may be spared some of these disappointments, as she doesn’t seem to be making new promises to attract this broader range of supporters. Trump is doing that work for her, and all her Republican-leaning endorsers seem to expect from her is that she won’t behave like Trump. Clinton is a disciplined politician, and that’s a pretty low bar.

Also, sitting in the White House with disappointed supporters is still probably better than sitting in an office building with taco salads and unsold Trump vodka. Governing is always going to disappoint someone—it’s just part of the job.

But in many ways, her most popular day in office would be her first, when all the governing decisions are still just vague promises and hopes for the future.