Why pundits will continue arguing about whether Obama won a mandate

One of the most heated post-election memes revolved about a simple question with a complicated answer: Did the President win a mandate Tuesday?

Factually, no.

That’s because an electoral mandate is a claim; there’s no clear or quantifiable definition. It’s a term that presidents and other politicians embrace because it’s a potent weapon in arguing that there’s clear support for his or her policies.

And so it was that pundits contended that President Obama’s re-election means that a majority of Americans supports the president’s economic policies, the Affordable Health Care Act, same-sex marriage, and many of his other priorities.

Others insisted that the president’s ability to stitch together support from a range of Americans is the practical definition of a mandate. (He won the female vote by 12 points, the Latino vote by 40 points, and the African-American vote by 80 points.)

In fact, the meaning of an electoral mandate is malleable. Some analysts and politicians define it as a simply majority; others believe it has to be a landslide.

For those who argue that a candidate has won a mandate, the threshold is often “the percentage your candidate has surpassed,” said Marjorie Randon Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University.

And still others believe it depends on whether one party sweeps an election, or whether the results were so surprising as to be a clear message from an electorate. Hershey says politicians can never claim a mandate because they can never really know why voters supported them.

“People have many reasons for their votes,” said Hershey, who has written about mandates. “Some people supported the president because they feel the same way he does about many issues. … But some people voted for him just because he’s a Democrat, and they’re a member of the Democratic Party. There’s no way to know how every voter feels about all of the president’s policies.”

The debate over mandates stretches back to the 1800s, when Andrew Jackson became the first president to claim one, and it’s become a tradition since then. As Ron Fournier points out in a National Journal piece that argues Obama has no mandate, presidents such as FDR, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George W. Bush all claimed mandates during times of great crisis. Ronald Reagan insisted he had a mandate in 1980, as did the Republicans in 1994, when that party won control of Congress for the first time in four decades. And so did Barack Obama in 2008.

Today’s controversy only suggests that the power of the concept lives on — as will the debate around it.

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