There are few certainties in electoral politics, but there’s one outcome that inevitably tends to emerge in mid-November of election years: The winning party will claim it has a mandate for action from the American people.
The Democratic party has already begun to do just that. Buoyed by President Barack Obama’s successful attempt to retain the White House and net gains of seats in the U.S. House and Senate, Democrats are anticipating that Obama will maintain a hard line in negotiations with congressional Republicans to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” The president has insisted that the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended for all income levels except those above $250,000 to help reduce deficits, while Republicans have countered that tax increases will impede economic growth during a sputtering recovery.
Party leaders say the American people have spoken, according to an article in The Washington Post. “It was an intrinsic part of (Obama’s) campaign, and the public supports it. So what more do you want?” said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
But not all political analysts consider the 2012 election to be a resounding mandate. Ron Fournier, editor-in-chief of the National Journal, quotes several political science professors and political strategists who question the notion that Obama and Democrats received a clear call to action on Nov. 6 in this article. Fournier and his sources note the lack of an electoral landslide and specific agenda for Obama as well as the pervading sense of gridlock on Capitol Hill.
“Mandates may not exist in Washington anymore with the hyper-partisanship we now see associated with every substantive or political move on the Hill,” said Steve McMahon, strategist for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
In the journal article “Electoral Mandates in American Politics,” researchers Grossback, Peterson and Stimson offer an additional perspective on what constitutes a mandate. They argue that mandates are a social construction developed by a community of political observers, politicians, and journalists who share an interpretation of election results. If enough members of the political community give credence to the idea of a mandate, it exists, no matter if it is actually supported by the election results.
Based off of Grossback, Peterson and Stimson’s analysis, the 2012 election likely did not confer a mandate for Obama and the Democrats. They consider elections such as 1964, 1980 and 1994 as examples of clear mandates. All three were characterized by electoral landslides — either at the congressional or presidential level or both — and a majority of stories in the media that favored the idea of a mandate. But if no surprises spring up on election night, and the media produces an equal number of pro-mandate and anti-mandate stories, a mandate likely did not occur. A number of political analysts like Nate Silver predicted that Democrats would maintain control of the White House and Senate and Republicans would continue to hold sway in the House, and Fournier’s take suggests that all the media coverage hasn’t necessarily joined the mandate bandwagon.
Although their research appears to discount the presence of a mandate after this election cycle, Grossback, Peterson and Stimson do offer some hope about the prospects for the federal government not sliding off the fiscal cliff. They point out that members of Congress tend to respond more to congressional elections than presidential ones. Smarting after a net loss of seats in the House and Senate, Speaker of the House John Boehner and congressional Republicans have indicated a willingness to compromise on some issues, such as eliminating tax loopholes for top earners. 2012 might not have produced much of a mandate, but members of Congress still know who the guarantors of their re-election are — constituents.