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Elections an opportunity, not a mandate, for GOP, polling shows

A voter shows off her sticker as she leaves a polling place on November 4, 2014. (Getty images/Scott Olson)

A Republican member of the new Congress is likely to lay claim in the coming weeks to a mandate from the voters while defending or promoting favored policies or legislation.

And that prompts the question: What exactly were American voters telling the Republicans on Election Day, when they gave them control of the Senate and increased the size of their existing House majority? According to exit polling and an analysis of the results prepared by one Republican pollster, it wasn’t a “mandate.” Rather, it was an opportunity.

“For Republicans, this year’s midterm can’t be called a mandate,” wrote David Winston, a GOP pollster who advises House and Senate Republicans, in a 15-page report titled “Fix It.”

“It’s important to understand that the election showed the public is willing to listen to Republican ideas but voters have to be sold on each individual idea first,” Winston explained. “Republicans do not have carte blanche, but they have an electorate that is willing to listen to Republican ideas to fix the country. That is a unique opportunity for any political party.”

As in the previous two elections, voters’ top issue by far in November was jobs and the economy, followed distantly by health care and defense and terrorism. According to the survey, 40 percent of voters' top issue was jobs and the economy; 10 percent were most concerned about heath care; and 9 percent were worried about terrorism and defense-related issues.

Overwhelmingly, voters were sour on the economy. Only 29 percent rated it excellent or good, with 70 percent saying it was “not so good” or “poor.” Only 28 percent said their family’s finances had improved since Obama was re-elected in 2012, and 70 percent said things had stayed the same or deteriorated. The large bloc of voters who were unhappy with the economy voted Republican by a margin of 58 percent to 41 percent.

Now, the voters want the Republicans to do more than simply stop Obama’s policies. That was clear from the data, and it should temper the GOP’s penchant for dropping everything to fight Obama every time he does something they oppose.

Among independents, 78 percent wanted Republicans to “concentrate on economic policies over reining in the president.” But even among "conservative Republicans," who gave Obama an astonishingly high 98 percent disapproval rating, 59 percent of respondents said the GOP Congress should “focus” on proposing proactive policies to address the economy.

Only 36 percent wanted the new Republican Senate and GOP House to prioritize being a “check and balance” on the president.

However, the data also showed that the voters support Republicans over Democrats on the issues.

That support offers the GOP an opportunity to forge a connection with voters that could carry over into the 2016 presidential campaign.

“The brand challenge for Republicans is to turn winning the issues into favorables and expand their midterm majority coalition,” Winston said in his report. “Newt Gingrich once said: ‘Walmart doesn’t get ahead by attacking Sears, but by offering better value.’ That captures the Republican challenge going forward.”

In the weeks since the midterm elections, attitudes toward Obama and the new Congress might have changed.

For instance, some recent polls suggest higher job approval ratings for Obama than the 42 percent he clocked in the RealClearPolitics.com average on Nov. 4. Still, the data in Winston’s report is instructive in attempting to divine exactly why the voters delivered such a huge victory to the Republicans and so strongly rebuked Obama and the Democrats.

Winston’s analysis was based on a combination of the exit polls conducted by major media outlets, with a sample of 19,441 respondents, and a New Models post-election survey conducted election night of 1,000 people who said they voted. The exit polling overall attempted to capture the sentiment of voters who voted early and absentee.

“Ultimately, what [the data] reflects is a country that continues to be unhappy with the current direction of the economy and have decided to give Republicans more governing responsibility,” Winston said.

“This is not an endorsement of an agenda but a vote for a different direction,” he added. “Once that direction is defined, Republicans will have to build support for their legislative priorities as the election did not endorse a specific course of action but, rather, a clear desire for change.”