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.

{ 7 comments }

Chris November 7, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I agree on all fronts, including Bush. And that wouldn’t be a great comparison, anyway; 2004 also increased an already robust GOP majority in the House and they added a whopping four Senate seats. Last night’s results were much more tentative, with the GOP keeping almost all of their gains from the wave election of ’10 and the Senate staying about where it was.

LFC November 7, 2012 at 1:10 pm

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.

But if they choose a candidate based on party and not issues, then how do they choose the party? Flip a coin? What you’re saying here is that there is little or no connection between positions on issues and voting decisions. Can that really be right?

DRM November 7, 2012 at 1:52 pm

A more useful and I think more historically and etymology congruent way of viewing a mandate is to contrast governing with a mandate to governing as a trustee or as a delegate. That would mean one holds a mandate when governing in congruence with their campaign platform, and not in disregard of it for one own brilliance, as a trustee, or as just a continuous poll taking machine, as a delegate.

I have no idea why a mandate is related to the size of an election count spread or even to the direct knowledge of voters of the elements of the campaign pledges. The simple point is that the pledges were made, informed persons know they were made, and it is not that difficult to know if governing is congruent with them (or if not, the varying from the pledges are justified by new and unanticipated circumstances).

Regarding this election, Obam’sa governing reflects mandation (and not trustee and delegate) when it is congruent with his campaign pledges. At this moment, since he made such pledges and since he won, he holds a mandate. If he governs in indifference to that mandate, as arguably Obama did in his first term, then he loses it.

LFC November 7, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Cf. E.J. Dionne today in the Post:
“The voters who reelected the president knew what they were voting for. They also knew what they were voting against.”

LFC November 7, 2012 at 5:44 pm
Neal Humor November 8, 2012 at 4:01 am

Mr. John Sides: You see “little reason” to suspect that Republicans will treat Obama differently in his second term? Here’s one reason: They can no longer postpone every decision and hope to replace the President soon. Now Republicans in Congress understand that they’re stuck with Obama for another 4 years; at the same time, tackling the nation’s problems can’t wait that long. I imagine Republicans find themselves in a very uncomfortable position, having to work with this President and a Democratic Senate to resolve issues such as the dreaded “fiscal cliff.” I imagine it’s something like waking up from a nightmare only to discover that you’re still dreaming. I hope my brief commentary has provided food for thought on why Republicans can’t continue to treat President Obama as a nuisance they hope will go away quickly. Thanks for reading.

David Marcus November 9, 2012 at 2:22 am

So can we agree that the WSJ was/is full of it? Obama’s percentage margin over Romney is bigger than Bush’s 2.46% margin over Kerry, and his numerical margin over Romney (currently 3.1 million, with several million California absentees still to be counted) is bigger than Bush’s 3.01 million vote margin over Kerry. And of course Obama’s 332 electoral votes are a wee bit more than Bush’s 286. If 2012 is no mandate, then 2004 was even less of one.

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