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No, Obama Didn't Win A "mandate"

Gerald Seib and Sara Murray of the Wall Street Journal link to my latest TRB column:

There’s been much post-election discussion about whether the size of President-elect Barack Obama’s win gives him a “mandate” to govern the way he sees fit. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic weighs in, answering that question with a clear “yes.”

I certainly can't blame Seib and Murray for reaching this conclusion, in part because the headline on the website reads "He Won a Mandate," but my column actually does not argue that Obama won a mandate. What I argue is that the "mandate" concept is a silly quadrenniel post-election argument that Republicans have a knack for winning:

In reality, no president ever truly has a mandate, in the sense of the electorate voting for him as if his entire platform were a ballot initiative. Candidates' platforms play a role in who wins elections, but so do economic conditions, scandals, the candidates' personalities, and the Election Day weather in Philadelphia.

The proportion of each factor is variable, though sometimes the broad contours can be seen. (Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide was clearly more of an ideological affirmation than Jimmy Carter's 1976 post-Watergate squeaker.) Usually, an election's mandate-iness is hard to pinpoint. The trick is to depict elections that your party wins as pure policy seminars, and elections the other party wins as fluky popularity contests.

I do proceed to argue that Obama's win is more of an endorsement of his platform than, say, George W. Bush ever won. But if the question is whether a majority of the electorate specifically chose Obama because they approve of his policy agenda, the answer is no. That never happens.

--Jonathan Chait