The Elusive Mandate: Searching for Meaning in Presidential Elections

by Larry Bartels on January 30, 2013 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Political science

That’s the title of a lecture I delivered recently at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The talk—an opinionated overview of political science research on American presidential elections—is now posted on the Radcliffe Institute’s website. Here’s the summary:

Almost 50 years ago, eminent Harvard political scientist V. O. Key Jr. described in his book The Responsible Electorate an electorate “moved by concern about central and relevant questions of public policy, of governmental performance, and of executive personality.” Bartels assesses how well Key’s optimistic portrait of the American electorate holds up in light of the subsequent half-century of electoral research. He concludes that presidential election outcomes are mostly determined by factors unrelated to central and relevant questions of public policy and governmental performance.

There’s nothing about the 2012 election, except to note that it was quite ordinary.


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