If Republicans capture the Senate majority tonight, as experts expect, conservatives will quickly try to translate those results into a governing mandate. In fact, this has already started to happen. “The Republican Party's gonna have one of the most important, biggest mandates I can recall a party ever having,” Rush Limbaugh said Monday. “It is going to have won for one reason: To stop Obama.” Future Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Ted Cruz already agree on the first step: Repeal Obamacare via the reconciliation process. At Reason, Peter Suderman expressed a similar sentiment, although he explicitly rejects the idea that the election gives Republicans a mandate. “[N]o matter which way the election goes, this isn't just a generalized rejection of Obama, although favorable impressions of the president recently hit a record low,” he writes. “It's a rejection of Obama's policies.” (Emphasis his)

To some extent, this is true. Obama is unpopular and has been a drag on Democratic candidates this year. But the Democratic Party is defending seats in deep red states and has a well-documented midterm turnout problem. How much of the Republican victory Tuesday is a rebuke of Obama’s policies versus the inevitable result of those structural factors? The answer to this question will determine whether Americans are giving Republicans a mandate—and it’s much murkier than conservatives admit.

The midterms are largely confirming what we’ve already known. Obama’s approval rating has settled in the low 40s and voters disapprove of him across a wide array of issues. It’s not surprising that Democrats must distance themselves from Obama—and his policies—in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Alaska. But Republican candidates have been unable to challenge Democratic candidates in Michigan and Oregon—blue states where the GOP had hopes of competing. Obama stumped for Gary Peters in Detroit a few days ago and Jeff Merkley, the Democratic incumbent in Oregon, said in October, “Certainly, anytime the president would like to come to Oregon, I’d love to show him around and talk to him about the issues we have here.”

In other words, the Republican argument for a mandate rests on competitive elections in three purple states—Iowa, New Hampshire and Colorado. Conservatives may argue that this is enough to give the GOP a mandate. But these victories—if they happen—will all be by tight margins. In 2010, midterm races in those three states had combined 3.2 million votes. If all three Republican candidates win this year, their combined margin of victory will be a few hundred thousand votes. 

For that reason, these midterms don’t give Republicans a mandate to dismantle Obama’s policy achievements. “The public still opposes Obamacare,” Suderman writes. “And clear majorities disapprove of the president's handling of both the economy and foreign policy.” Yet, the public also does not want to repeal Obamacare and has nearly as little faith in the GOP’s handling of the economy and foreign policy as it does of Obama’s. But when competitive elections are held in the deep South and not California, they cast a negative light on Obama’s policies and obscure the dislike of the Republican agenda.

This election, instead, is a rebuke of the entire Washington political establishment. This isn’t a revolutionary finding—Congressional approval and trust in government are both near all-time lows. But it helps explain why Republican victory tonight is not indicative of a sea change in American opinion. The public is upset and looking to deal out a beating tonight—and Democrats are set up to receive it. Given partisan polarization and congressional gridlock, Americans will likely be looking to deal out another beating in 2016. When that time comes, Republicans will be set up to bear it. But just as these midterms won’t give Republicans a mandate, a repudiation of blue-state Republican senators in 2016 won’t give Democrats a mandate either.

This post has been updated to say that Peter Suderman rejects the idea of a Republican mandate.