What's the definition of a mandate?

During the presidency of George W. Bush, Democrats and the left often accused Bush of governing as though he had a “mandate,” meaning a sense of authority for a partisan agenda that could be presumed had he won a large majority of the popular vote. This was said to be wrong because he did not win by a large majority of the popular vote; in fact, he lost the popular vote in 2000 and won it only narrowly in 2004 (50.7% vs. Kerry’s 48.3%).

Now that Barack Obama has won the election, before even a day has elapsed I’ve seen several posters on this board referring to Obama’s “mandate,” and today Paul Krugman wrote that Obama has a mandate. Yet, according to the latest results, Obama captured 52% of the popular vote. I know that in a country with ~170 million registered voters, a difference of 1.3% amounts to a couple million. Still, is that a mandate? The way the term has been used in the past, it’s been made to sound as though the elected official needed a huge majority to govern with a “mandate”–I never heard numbers tossed around, but I always imagined the percentage would need to be greater than the low 50’s.

So where do we draw the line in terms of what counts as a mandate?

Mandate = My side wins by any margin.

Dumb Luck/Fixed Election = Your side wins by any margin.

I thought that was obvious. :wink:

I thought it was the Bush administration and the GOP itself that declared that Bush’s reelection gave him a mandate, not something the left had accused him of.

Of course he has a mandate for his platform - that’s what elections are about. In the context of the huge number of Democratic gains made in the previous successive elections, the 2006 midterms and the 2008 President elections, it would be obtuse to interpret those results as anything other than a robust repudiation of the Republicans and Bush, and an endorsement of the Democratic alternative.

The problem with mandate language is that it’s open to abuse. It wasn’t that Bush won with a narrow margin so therefore he ought to behave paralysed in government. The problem was he won marginal victories on the basis of being a moderate compassionate conservative, who had little domestic agenda, a humble foreign policy, and promised tax cuts and fiscal conservatism. However, despite this, he governed to the far right on every issue and delivered none of that accept tax cuts for the upper income brackets.

Bush also tried to apply the notion of general “political capital” to implement agendas that were never put to the public, such as social security privatisation. Just an aside, but can you imagine the disaster if that had actually passed?

Just looking at the all the incredible outpouring of jubilation last night, I assume you can understand that a significant majority of people have felt alienated under Bush’s presidency precisely because neither he nor the Republican leadership ever even pretended to care about their views.

Obama won a sweeping victory which penetrated into red states, redefining the map, and achieving a healthy popular margin - does actually stand for something. He also won basically all demographics with the exception of lower income and lower education whites, evangelicals. So, he certainly has more political capital than Bush ever supposedly had.

Bush’s mandate wasn’t so much his own election numbers. It was the fact that America had elected a Republican president and a Republican majority in congress. In essence, America had given the Republicans the chance to do what they wanted.

Obama’s mandate is the same. He and the Democrats have been given the power to implement their platform as they see fit.

I think the idea of a “mandate” (in the sense that a politician could be elected with or without a mandate) is idiotic. If you win the election, then a majority of people like what you have to say and want to give you a chance to enact your policies. I can’t think of a principled way to determine that one person was elected “with a mandate” while another wasn’t.

Also, saying a politician was elected with a mandate is really just a proxy for whether or not someone likes that politician. I don’t think you’ll find any long-time Obama supporters that will argue for the proposition that he was elected without a mandate (or the opposite).

Novak: 3 Million Vote Margin = Mandate For Bush; 7 Million For Obama = No Mandate»
From 2004:

Nobody denies that every elected president has some basic mandate for their platform within the parameters of a relatively unobstructionist Congress, but the question comes up more in relation to governing in proportion to the transparency of your themes, ideas and policies and the margin of support you enjoy.

Would you admit that it’s not hard to determine whether a president is going far astray of their electoral platform, or whether a president comes to office with a narrow support base?

Actually, given that the presidency virtually always goes to the most charismatic candidate, regardless of policies (perfect streak since 1976, AFAICT), I’m fairly dubious about the notion of a mandate, period. Presidents are the head of the executive branch, not the legislative; let’s keep them that way.

Granted, it’s still better than Canada, where the PM will regularly claim a mandate to pursue whatever stupid policy (like the War on Drugs), ignoring the actual policy’s lack of popularity (again, War on Drugs), and that a majority of Canadian voters went for someone else anyway. We basically never have a majority of the population vote for one party (twice in a century and a half), even when a party holds a majority of seats in the Commons.

Quick answer to the question: a mandate is just a way of justifying whatever you wanted to do, regardless of reality.

Well, obviously there is no magic number (other than 100%) that makes it a mandate. I would argue that Bush didn’t have a clear mandate - a lot of people just didn’t care for Kerry, and voted to keep Bush in because the war was still going on. Whereas in this election I think more people voted for Obama because they really appreciate his message and character, and not as much to vote against McCain (except for his association with Bush). That, combined with the fact that Congress also swung heavily in favor of the Democrats makes it more of a mandate.

However, there might also be the factor of that people are looking at the electoral college vote, for which there was a much higher margin for Obama.

I agree completely with this.

I do not see the point in trying to define a “mandate”, it seems like an arbitrary definition that serves no purpose.

That being said, the margin of victory certainly does make a difference in how you should govern, not necessarily as a matter of principle but more of a practical matter. A landslide victory sends a message to the people you work with, both on your side and against, that you start with overwhelming popular support. You would need to compromise a lot less on policy decisions than you would if your margin of victory was narrow.

It is important to be aware of why people are supporting you. Is it because they love your policies? Or is it because they hate the other candidate or party? Even if you start out with a lot of popular and legislative support, these factors will determine how unilateral you really want to be, given that there may be a backlash down the road if you are too far out of alignment with the population.

Some candidates are going to be better at working with their opponents then others, and these candidates will get more done than a different candidate that had the same level of support.

In short, for purposes of determining how much compromise you have to make, there are many different factors at play. I believe a candidate would be wise to not waste time wondering about a made up “mandate” number, but rather analyzing the level of support on a policy by policy basis to determine how much support is available and how much compromise is necessary.

This strikes me as a pretty healthy system. The end result will be policies that should align well with the population. If candidate A won 90% of the vote policies should end up looking like their original ideas most of the time. If they won 50.1% of the vote you would see a lot more ideas from the 49.1% filtering in.

Winning by 53 percent means 47 percent did not agree with your policy ideas. That is not a mandate. Bush claimed he had one after a week long recall. But, even at 51 percent, you are in charge and can adopt most of your policies.Mandate or not, you have the power.