The 2012 Election Was Not a Mandate

by John Sides on November 7, 2012 · 7 comments

in Campaigns and elections

When your side wins, it’s easy to think you have a “mandate.” So when Bush won in 2004, Brendan Nyhan notes, the Wall Street Journal editorial page called it a “decisive mandate” but when Obama won in 2012 they called it “one of the narrower re-elections in modern times.” Paul Krugman claimed a mandate for Obama in 2008:

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.

Yes, voters were simply smitten with Obama’s first-term agenda—as the 2010 election so clearly demonstrated—but somehow Krugman was undeterred in 2012:

This election is…shaping up as a referendum on our social insurance system, and it looks as if Obama will have a clear mandate for preserving and extending that system.

And in September Obama also implied he’d have a mandate:

The voters will have sent a clear message. If the majority of the American people have said, ‘This is the direction we need to go,’ and the Republicans in Congress say, ‘No, we’re going to go in the exact opposite direction,’ that’s probably not going to leave them to keep that majority too long.”

So let’s get the facts straight. Elections are rarely mandates.  Brendan said this in 2004.  I said it in 2008.  Nolan said it yesterday.  I’ll say it again.  Voters don’t make choices by first formulating views on all sorts of issues, then figuring out where the candidates stand on these issues, and then choosing the candidate whose views best represent their own.  In fact, often that story runs in reverse: they choose a candidate based on party or whatever, and then line up their views on issues to match the candidates.

If mandates exist at all, they do so in the minds of political leaders, who might interpret an election as a mandate and then give the winner some deference in policymaking, at least for a short while.  This is the argument of Mandate Politics, by political scientists Lawrence Grossback, David Peterson, and James Stimson.  (See also this article.) After the 2008 election, the Republicans most certainly did not behave as if Obama had a mandate, and I see little reason to suspect they will now, especially given that Obama’s victory was narrower, that the GOP can always blame it on Romney, or whatever.

This isn’t to suggest that an Obama victory doesn’t have important consequences for policy.  It locks in the Affordable Care Act for at least 4 more years.  And negotiations around the fiscal cliff would likely have proceeded differently under a Romney presidency.

But no one, Obama included, should think that voters conveyed a mandate.

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