Mobilization Matters: Why Democrats lost the San Antonio Mayoral Race

By Melissa R. Michelson

On Saturday, June 13, San Antonio voters went to the polls in the runoff election for their city mayor, which pitted two women of color against each other: Ivy Taylor and Leticia Van de Putte, and resulted in Taylor’s election as the first African American mayor of this majority-Latino city. Unofficial results released that evening by Bexar County indicated a victory by a margin of 3,331 votes, with voter turnout at just under 14.1 percent of registered voters. Van de Putte noted the turnout issue when she conceded on Saturday evening, as did Democratic consultant Colin Strother, who told the Texas Tribune: “At the end of the day, we needed 3,000 Democrats to get off their asses and go vote, and they didn’t.” Turnout in the first round (in May) was just 12.4 percent.

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The Coming Blue Tide Needs Competition

by Craig Goodman

Last week, Tiffany Cartwright and Tyler Young published an interesting post on the changing demographics of Texas and how that might change the politics of the Lone Star State. Overall, it is a well-done piece and the sheer number of figures gives readers a lot to consider. However, while the demographics may point to change, pundits and many Democrats have been pointing to the so-called sleeping giant of Texas politics for nearly 2 decades and if anything, Texas has become a more Republican state over that period of time. Why has the predicted change failed to materialize? My suggestion is simple: the absence of an effective Democratic Party organization that can energize and mobilize Hispanic voters.

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Mandate elections: they’re not just for presidents anymore

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.

Political scientists contemplate the 2014 midterms

by Julia Azari

– Peter Hanson of the University of Denver on the implications of Cory Gardner’s Senate victory for social conservatism in Colorado

– Seth Masket dissects Colorado governor John Hickenlooper’s successful reelection bid

– Post-election analysis at the Mischiefs of Faction, including some important context on the elections themselves from Seth Masket and Hans Noel, discussion of implications for governance from Jonathan Ladd, a guest post from my colleague Paul Nolette about the prospects for judicial appointments, and reflection from me about presidential responses to midterm loss

– At the Monkey Cage, Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov set the record straight on independents in the 2014 midterms, and Taeku Lee examines the voting behavior of Asian-Americans.

How national are the 2014 elections?

By Julia Azari

Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction 

Over the past twenty years, midterm elections have become nationalized. In 1994 and 2010, Republicans across the country ran under national platforms, promising to change politics and to reverse the agendas of the Democratic president – first Clinton, then Obama – in the White House. This phenomenon hasn’t been limited to a single party. In 2006, the midterm elections were cast as a referendum on the Bush administration and the Iraq war; similarly, in 1998, the Clinton impeachment emerged as a major theme. The 2010 midterms were notable not only for the Tea Party movement that unified the messages for Congressional candidates across the country, but also for the Republican governors who came to power under the same wave. Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, John Snyder of Michigan, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin all seemed to interpret their party’s strength in the election as a mandate for to move policy sharply to the right in their respective states.

Not all races carry the same symbolic weight. Eric Cantor’s primary loss earlier this year was significant not because of the margin, but because of its defiance of expectations and because of Cantor’s status in the party. Similarly, Grimes’ race against McConnell has attracted national interest, and will have national implications, because of McConnell’s role as Senate Minority Leader. But here the (likely unsuccessful) Grimes campaign faces a dilemma that’s difficult to resolve. An established tactic for attacking incumbents is to point out how they have become Washington insiders, and lost touch with their districts and constituents. At the same time, the energy for fundraising and attracting headliners like Bill Clinton comes not from concern about the representation of Kentucky (or where ever) in Congress, but from the national significance of the race.

Is 2014 an exception to the nationalization trend? Lee Drutman and Mark Schmitt suggest that party polarization has turned this years’ contests into a “Seinfeld election” – an campaign about nothing. Jobs, national security, and healthcare are on voters’ minds, but no central issue stands out. Furthermore, voters have already had the opportunity to vote on some of the most polarizing issues and figures. The 2010 midterms delivered Obama his famous “shellacking.” The recall election against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker allowed national donors, along with Wisconsin voters, to weigh with their displeasure about his controversial policies – even if those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Has the narrative of elections as major referenda on policy become stale and lost its power?

At least some signs suggest that national politics remain crucial in the upcoming contests. Both Obamas, along with Bill Clinton, have spent time in Wisconsin, campaigning for Walker’s opponent, Mary Burke. This signals that the Democrats consider the race symbolically important for the national party, on top of Wisconsin’s strategic significance in national elections. Wisconsin isn’t the only place attracting national figures; Mitt Romney has also been traveling in support of Republican Senate candidates like David Perdue in Georgia, and Joni Ernst in Iowa. Mitch McConnell’s reelection contest has also attracted national attention and high-level visits, with Romney visiting the state for McConnell and both Clintons campaign on behalf of challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.

However, the national emphasis is uneven across different races. According to a Brookings Institution report, the major issues in Iowa “have been the Affordable Care Act, the economy, and abortion.”  In contrast, a report in the same series identifies the major issues in Kansas, where a Republican Senator and a Republican governor are both fighting off challenges, as highly specific to the candidates themselves as opposed to national issues.

In 2014, party differences also exist. Republican candidates’ websites feature national policy questions, while Democratic candidates stress their local ties. Georgia Senate candidate Michelle Nunn’s campaign website boasts her plan for “jobs for Georgians,” while her opponent, David Perdue’s site emphasizes the national debt. Does this difference generalize to other campaigns? Using campaign websites as a measure of message, the evidence suggests that it might. In the Colorado Senate race, Republican challenger Cory Gardner prominently displays his Colorado ties, but also emphasizes national energy and economic issues. Democratic incumbent Udall’s issues page, by contrast, talks about businesses and jobs in Colorado. Each of Udall’s talking points on the main issue page refers specifically to outcomes in the state, not the nation.

The obvious question here is whether any apparent differences between Democrats and Republicans stem from the fact that the incumbent president is a Democrat, or whether they reflect a deeper difference. With an incumbent president in his sixth year, it makes sense for Republicans to bring up national problems, and to encourage voters to treat the midterms as a referendum on Obama’s performance. In the same vein, Democratic candidates have incentives to distance themselves from Obama and the baggage of a sixth-year administration. Nevertheless, the evidence that Republicans are more ideological might also account for this difference – that regardless of circumstances, Republican Congressional candidates might be more likely to frame their campaigns around the national party’s major ideas and values.

Nationalization also has several dimensions. The usual definition, as applied to midterm elections, is that individual races focus on national issues, and, as a result, have some uniformity in tone, focus, and theme across the country. But another aspect of nationalization is that state (and lower) level races take on national significance.

The nationalization question for 2014 remains unclear, and calls into question what we mean when we talk about nationalized party politics. What kinds of national implications can be drawn from a low-engagement election after four years of divided government? (See Morris Fiorina’s work on parties and collective responsibility for deeper thinking about this). Yet, the nationalization of the political system, facilitated by party sorting, technology, and our system of campaign finance, seems like a trend that won’t be so easy to reverse. In the likely event of big Republican victories on Tuesday, it’s easier to imagine a narrative about the Obama presidency than about the inspiring campaigns of Joni Ernst or Thom Tillis.
The full implications of these developments remain to be seen. The Constitution sets up a very localized system of representation in Congress, and it’s uncertain how that fits with nationalized party politics. The nature of representation in the United States has changed and remains in flux. Regarding the politics of the 2014 elections, let’s return to the “Seinfeld” question. What happens when elections are understood to have national significance, but their national policy importance remains unclear? If the parties and candidates lack the ability or the inclination to try to shape the story of the elections, who will step in to interpret the results  after the votes are counted?

Julia Azari is an assistant professor at Marquette University. She is the author of Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.