by Julia Azari
It’s been more than a week since the midterm elections brought Republican candidates to victory across the country. This means we’ve had ample time to read pieces that deal with some version of the question, “Was it a mandate?”
While this is a favorite question after an election, for political scientists, it can be a pretty frustrating one. Interpreting the results of an election is not only difficult, it may even be intellectually dishonest. Can we ever really determine what millions of voters intended when they cast their votes?
However, a number of scholarly works have engaged with electoral mandates as a matter of “elite construction” rather than a hard fact. The focus of mandate scholarship has been on presidential elections, with the exception of the 1994 midterms, which Grossback, Peterson and Stimson identify in their book, Mandate Politics, as a mandate election.
This presidential preoccupation has informed the normative critiques of mandate construction. The late Robert Dahl criticized the idea of the presidential mandate as an illegitimate enhancement of executive power – the “pseudodemocratization” of the presidency. Similarly, in a 1995 article, Richard Ellis and Stephen Kirk refer to the presidential mandate as a way for modern presidents to circumvent negotiation between the branches by appealing to direct democracy.
I argue in my book, Delivering the People’s Message (linked above) that presidents – as well as other elites – have jumped to frame elections as policy mandates, often with partisan components, because of the institutional anxiety surrounding the presidency. The uneasy relationship between unilateral, often opaque, executive power, and democratic ideals makes mandate-claiming a logical strategy for presidents.
The structure of Congress has made it less historically vulnerable to these kinds of legitimacy critiques. But the last few years have been rough for its institutional image, with dog poop, Nickelback, and even France surpassing its public approval ratings. If my theory about mandate claims and legitimacy is both correct and applicable to Congress, then we should see more interpretations of midterm elections as mandates.
Working from the assumption that mandates are about narratives rather than about objective facts, midterm elections have a number of advantages over presidential contests.
The presidential mandate emerged as an idea about the president as the only official elected by the entire nation. Midterm elections are different – they have hundreds of contests for national, state, and local office. On the surface, this makes it much harder to come up with a unified narrative. On the other hand, parties can claim victory on the basis of winning symbolically important contests. They don’t have to win every office or even win big. A consistent pattern, combined with visible victories like Scott Walker’s reelection as Wisconsin’s governor, can form the basis of a mandate narrative.
The “presidential penalty” aspect of midterm elections offers some major advantages when it comes to mandate construction. For presidential elections, alternative explanations abound, and candidate-centric factors can take over the narrative. Midterm narratives tend to operate differently; lots of separate party victories in different parts of the country make it easier to tell the story of a party mandate. It’s much tougher to sell the idea that these victories resulted from candidate charisma.
The retrospective character of midterm elections makes it easier to identify them as being “about” something – but also casts them as automatically negative. In other words, the burden for the victorious party in midterm elections is to establish that the electorate didn’t just reject the status quo, but also actually registered approval for an alternate course. We should remember, of course, that these narratives are just that – ways of understanding what happened, rather than accurate reflections of voter preferences.
The stakes of the midterm mandates question, then, have the potential be very high. Perhaps the rise of midterm mandate narratives will reenergize inter-branch conflict, ending the overemphasis on presidential agenda-setting and governing that has bothered Constitutional scholars for years. But that’s not the only possibility. If elections every two years have the potential to be read as referenda on the president, then consistent “no” votes could detract even further from the legitimacy of our governing institutions. After this happens a couple of times, it’s not obvious how elected officials should respond to that message.