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Does Obama Have a “Mandate”?

- November 10, 2008

This is “Truths and Myths about the 2008 Election, Part V” — a.k.a. “Political Science Takes All the Fun Out of Elections, Part V.” This may be the last of these posts.

According to Lexis-Nexis, there are 204 stories published since November 4 that contain the words “Obama,” “election,” and “mandate.” What does it mean to have a “mandate”? Does Obama have one?

To answer these questions, we need to distinguish two ways of thinking about mandates.

Mandates as Signals from Voters
This is often what “mandate” appears to mean in popular discourse: “we can interpret the outcome of the election as an endorsement of the winner’s policy proposals.” It’s the implication of Paul Krugman’s post-election op-ed:

bq. This year, however, Mr. Obama ran on a platform of guaranteed health care and tax breaks for the middle class, paid for with higher taxes on the affluent. John McCain denounced his opponent as a socialist and a ”redistributor,” but America voted for him anyway. That’s a real mandate.

And also Matthew Yglesias:

bq. People want Obama to implement his agenda, and his agenda is a progressive one — cutting carbon emissions, expanding access to health insurance and early childhood education, making the tax code more progressive, and spreading the wealth around building broad-based prosperity.

The key problem is imputing what “people want.” We cannot assume that people selected Obama based on detailed knowledge of his policy positions. Let me pass the mike to Larry Bartels:

bq. We expect voters to listen carefully to what the candidates say and weigh the candidate’s positions in comparison with their own convictions and make a choice of candidates on the basis of their issue position. And then we expect the election to enforce responsiveness by having put the candidate in office who’s closest to the voter’s issue positions, who then implements those policies, and so people get policy outcomes that are close to what they wanted in the way of policies with respect to all the issues that they care about. That’s mostly not what happens.

Instead, these circumstances are more common:

bq. And so the relationship between their [citizens’] views about the issue and their voting behavior increased substantially over the course of the campaign, but it wasn’t because people were voting on the basis of this issue, it was because they were using what they knew about this issue either to rationalize the position that they now expressed about the issue or rationalizing the voting choice that they had already made on some other basis.

[Here, Larry is drawing on this paper by Gabriel Lenz.]

In short, we cannot interpret an election outcome as a wholesale endorsement of the winner’s policy proposals (or as a wholesale rejection of the loser’s). This is as true in 2008 — when some on the left want to use the election’s outcome to push back against the “center-right nation” idea — as in 2004, when Bush declared, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”

Mandates as “Social Constructions”
In their book Mandate Politics, Lawrence Grossback, David Peterson, and James Stimson note that a mandate is a “shared conclusion that derives from public interaction over the interpretation of an election.” In their telling, it is less important what voters did or did not want, and more important what policymakers believe voters want. After elections perceived to convey a “mandate,” members of Congress appear to change how they would normally vote on policy, thus shifting the overall direction of policy. However, in their account, only the 1964, 1980, and 1994 elections were truly “mandate” elections. Moreover, the effects on congressional voting are short-lived. (See also Brendan Nyhan here, and his comments on 2004.)

How should we evaluate the 2008 election in light of these results? Obama’s (apparent) 365 electoral votes fall short of Johnson’s (486) and Reagan’s (489). His popular vote share is obviously much closer to Reagan’s 51% than Johnson’s 61%.

But Obama’s victory does coincide with a significant Democratic seat gain in Congress. In fact, Matthew Shugart argues that the combination of Obama’s personal success and the Democrats’ party success is historic:

bq. 2008 marks the first time since 1918-1920 that a partisan change has occurred in the House and then been confirmed at the next presidential election–and 2006-2008 was bigger than the one in 1918-20…I would submit that this is the biggest PARTISAN MANDATE we have seen in the USA since FDR. [all-caps in original]

Brendan Nyhan notes that Democratic gains in 2006-2008 are virtually equal to Republican gains in 1994.

In sum, even if we cannot interpret Obama’s victory as a true popular mandate, this election in combination with 2006 may nevertheless be interpreted as providing him a mandate.

The ultimate question is how Republican leaders respond. To quote from Grossback, Peterson, and Stimson:

bq. We have see repeatedly that it is consensus on electoral message that carries force in Washington and moves politicians to rethink strategies. Consensus happens when both sides agree. Thus, the losing side need only deny electoral messages to keep consensus from forming.