The No-Mandate Myth


Ryan "the Dobson-slayer" Sager disappointingly buys into one of the lamer sour grapes arguments about the elections.

Outside of changing course in Iraq, I think it's fairly obvious that there really isn't one — especially when it comes to domestic policy. And here's a pretty good reason to be skeptical about any claims made on the basis of the Democrats' popular-vote margin in the Senate: Almost all of it came from safe seats in California, New York and Massachusetts.

This is true—Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Kennedy won by landslides totalling over 4 million votes, and the Democrats got 6.6 million more Senate votes than Republicans. But you can spot the Democrats another million votes in Indiana. They didn't challenge iconic Sen. Richard Lugar, and he racked up 1.16 million votes against a Libertarian (hooray) who scored 170,000. Spot them another million votes in Texas, where Kay Bailey Hutchison mutilated a hapless Democratic lawyer by a 1.1 million vote margin. The Democrats nominated placeholders who got creamed in Mississippi, Wyoming, and Utah, but those states are so vote-poor that they basically cancel out the Democratic landslides in North Dakota, Nebraska and West Virginia. So split the difference and the Democrats came out of the election with around 4.5 million more votes than Republicans in competitive races. Compared to George W. Bush's epochal 3 million vote margin in 2004, not too shabby for Chuck Schumer and crew.

Of course the better gauge of a national party's strength is how they fared in the 435 House districts, and Democrats won there by between 7 and 10 points, depending on how you count uncontested races. But isn't this moot anyway? When the Republican president proclaims it a "thumpin'," let's call it a thumpin' and move on.

NEXT: They Figured They Couldn't Trust Us. They Were Probably Right.

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  1. The Senate numbers are useless for another reason – there were a lot more Democratic seats in play than Republican seats. Only a third of the Senate was up for election. Of course the Democrats are going to get more votes when most of the campaigns are on their home turf.

    The better measure is House seats, every one of which was up for election. The figure I saw for total votes for House candidates gave the Democrats a 7 point victory. That’s probably the most relevant measure.

  2. David, it seems like you missed the point, which I think is valid. Many of the dems who won house seats against incumbents did so on platforms that were decidedly to the right of the party bigwigs. They ran on border security; they ran on protecting gun rights; some even ran on fiscal responsibility. But none of this jives with the national party’s “minimum wage raise now!” platform. So, in the end, individual districts were giving their individual candidates varied “mandates” based on their individual platforms—many of which do not jive with the national rhetoric—meaning that while there may be many small, varied “mandates”, there isn’t one big sweeping national democratic mandate outside of the war.

    Calling attention to how bad of a thumpin’ doesn’t really address Sager’s point, given that Sager never really called into question whether or not it was a thumpin.

    Democrats won this battle through a bunch of small battles, each of their own accord…not through a coordinated national campaign. So the mandate, no matter how much of a “thumpin” it was in the aggregate (by the numbers), it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a national mandate.

  3. Jesus Evan,

    What has gotten into you? You are exactly right. Moreover, I hate the whole “mandate” crap that goes on after elections. You have elections to settle issues. The Democrats won fair and square and they get to control Congress. The only caveat is they have to answer to the voters in two years for what they do with their power. The idea that not all elections are created equal or that someone shouldn’t try to govern because they won by a close margin is just crap.

  4. How come I always get half way through a David Weigle article, unknowingly, then think David Weigle wrote this then i go and check and sure enough David wrote it?

    Well to be honest at first i think i am accidentally reading a Daily Kos article.

  5. George W. Bush claimed a mandate in 2000 when he didn’t even win the popular vote! Screw mandates. You get a mandate when your party wins. All this subjective assessment of mandates is bullshit.

  6. Yes, because Daily Kos posters cheer when they report the Libertarian Party vote total. And are named “Weigle.”

  7. “You get a mandate when your party wins. All this subjective assessment of mandates is bullshit.”

    You are right Lamar. I fully admit that when my side loses. I, however, am not too confident that many people on the other side will admit that when the Republicans win. When Dems win they have a mandate. When Republicans win, it is because Bush is Hitler and is setting up a fascist state and stole the election.

  8. “Many of the dems who won house seats against incumbents did so on platforms that were decidedly to the right of the party bigwigs.”

    You hear this a lot, and it may be true, but it seems to be largely taken for granted that it doesn’t require any citing of actual candidates–other than Heath Shuler. Where are the rest of the “many”?

  9. Weigal,

    If you could ever find anything or post anything bad to say about a Democrat, you might not be subjected to cracks like Joshua Corning made. They are at least partially in power now, so the old “I can’t criticize Democrats because they are the minority party” carard really doesn’t hold.

  10. “You hear this a lot, and it may be true, but it seems to be largely taken for granted that it doesn’t require any citing of actual candidates–other than Heath Shuler. Where are the rest of the “many”?”

    What about Webb from Virginia? He doesn’t seem like much of a stark raving liberal to me. What about Casey from PA? I frankly don’t know anything about him, but if he is anything like his father, I would not call him a hardcore liberal.

  11. Michael Tomasky in the LA Times: “In fact, of the 27 Democratic candidates for the House who won outright Tuesday, only five can truly be called social conservatives. Far more are pro-choice, against the Iraq war and quite liberal. Why, there’s even a woman who was tossed out of a presidential event for wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt (New Hampshire’s Carol Shea-Porter), and a fellow who ran an alternative newspaper and who proudly supports affirmative action – in Kentucky, no less (John Yarmuth).”,0,3828822.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail

    Evan, your thoughts?

    And what’s up with these potshots at Weigel? Why not let him criticize the Democrats when he finds something to criticize instead of expecting some banal a-pox-on-both-their-houses commentary when both houses haven’t necessarily earned equally severe poxes?

  12. John, I was addressing Evan’s point about House races. Casey and Webb ran for Senate.

    Casey seems a bit more conservative than most Democrats on social issues, but next to Rick Santorum he looked like a stoned flag-burning Black Panther. And Webb was pro-choice and anti-gay marriage amendment.

  13. It’s funny to see Republicans proclaiming that the Democrats who beat them are conservatives, after listening to them denounce them as raving liberals for a year and half.

  14. Joe,

    No one who paid any attention ever thought the rank and file of the Dems in the house or Senate were radicals. It is the leadership that is the issue. Maybe John Conures and Pelosi and Mr. Un indicted Co-conspirator Murtha are mainstream types in your world, but they certainly are not to the rest of the country.

    The issue is do the Democrats want to spend the next three years trying to impeach Bush and slave the emotions of the nutroots left and hand out pork to their constituencies or do they want to do something productive. If they want to do something productive like cut spending and end earmarking, good for them. They might turn me into a Democrat. I am not optimistic though. If I were Bush, I would give them a modest minimum wage increase first thing. That seems to be the only specific policy they have and then tell them okay now what?

  15. I think the “mandate” talk is simple enough to explain. For political and psychological reasons, the winners so very much want to believe that there’s a groundswell of support for their cause. Even for the relatively large change in seats that we saw in this election, the percentage change was quite small. It was significant in that two houses of Congress changed hands, yes, but it was insignificant when one realizes how closely divided the country is between the two major parties, and when one also considers how little national policy affects most voters. I either like my representatives or I don’t. If national issues governed most elections, then incumbents wouldn’t do so well, year after year after year. After all, few “problems” or even problems have gotten solved or adequately addressed by the people holding office.

    I, for one, would prefer more doubt and caution in my elected officials and less arrogance. Operating in the belief that the whole country is behind you is bad. Kind of like what steered the Bush administration so far off course after 9/11. We have a mandate! Woo hoo! Not to mention that acting like 51% of the population counts and the other 49% doesn’t is simply offensive.

  16. “No one who paid any attention ever thought the rank and file of the Dems in the house or Senate were radicals.”

    You mean all of those Republican losers who spent their campaigns proclaiming their opponents “liberals,” supported by MoveOn, and buddy-buddy with John Kerry-Ted Kennedy-Barbara Boxer-Nancy Pelosi were lying about their opponents?

    None of the class of ’07 were denounced as liberals. We’ve always been at war with Oceana.

    Oh, and John Murtha, a “liberal” outside the mainstream? ‘Kay, dude.

    Pro Libertate,

    The margin of the Democrats’ victory, adding up every house race, was 7 points. Not one point. Not 51/49. Seven points.

  17. Well Joe,

    Murtha is borderline insane if you ever see him in public. He makes Howard Dean normal and well adjusted. He is also one of the worst pork barrell spenders and ear markers in Congress. You never hear about that on Reason though because Weigal is too busy kicking around some Republican who lost this election and is about as relevent Millard Filmore. That is why Weigal gets shots like the one Corning gave. He never met a Democrat he didn’t love and never met a Republican he can’t insult. “But he celibrates when Libertarian vote totals go up” Translation “I am smart and you are stupid and I can say anything, no matter how rediculous and you are going to believe it.”

    More importantly, if all these Democrats are such moderates, let’s see it. Let’s see what they do with Congress. Please lay out all these wonderful moderate things they plan to do. Further, if they are such moderates, can I expect to see an end to earmarking and runaway federal spending, now that they control things? I certainly hope so.

  18. joe,

    Come on–you’re being disingenuous. My point was that the country, as a matter of policy, is pretty evenly divided. Parse it how you like, that remains true. Neither party has anything approaching a mandate to do much of anything. Heck, even the policy on Iraq appears to lack a majority view, except maybe to do something different.

    It’s part of our system for the majority to impose its will on the minority. At least within certain limits. However, let’s not pretend that that’s not the case with talk about mandates and with statements like “America has spoken”. America has done no such thing. Whether it’s the GOP or the Democrats implementing their policies, they’re forcing a large percentage of the country to go along against their will. Disturbing, but that’s what we have to work with. Until my benign, enlightened, power-ring assisted rule begins, that is 🙂

  19. Many of the dems who won house seats against incumbents did so on platforms that were decidedly to the right of the party bigwigs

    This is just not true. I have addressed this in a previous thread, and I will repeat it here.

    If you look at the House races, the majority of the Dems who flipped seats were not more conservative than mainstream Dems :

    Yarmuth in KY-03 is a liberal, the two CT seats were picked up by progressive/liberal candidates, the PA seats were won by liberals, the two seats in NH — progressive/liberal, the seats in NY were not conservative. Boyda in KS-02 was a moderate, so were the winners in Florida 16 and 22. The only winners who could honestly be called conservatives are Shuler in NC-08, Lampson in TX-22, and the three Indiana Dems. Yeah that a real conservative wave. Conservatism, as it is defined by todays conservative party/ movement was rejected by the voters — despite what the pundits on TV say.

    As for the Senate, I’ll see your Webb and Casey and raise you a McCaskill (Liberal), Sanders (a socialist), Brown (very liberal), WHitehouse (liberal). Cardin leans liberal as does Amy Klobuchar too (but they didn’t flip a seat).
    And Jon Tester opposes the Patriot Act, is pro-choice, against the Flag Burning Amendment and against the gay marriage ban amendment — that doesn’t resemble today’s conservatives at all.

    So can we please put to rest the bullshit “Dems only won by running to the right”. I don’t pretend to know why the Dems won — but I do know that conservativism lost — badly.

  20. If you’re going to factor in place-holder candidates you have to do that for the democrats as well. Jane Harman, our congresswoman from Southern California does not campaign – which is information I got from one of her senior staff – except for doing one bike ride through her district. I can’t imagine this is the only place that happened – especially in California.

  21. Aggregating senate results and/or rep results by party affiliation and then coming up with some sort of “popular vote” is about as nutty as you can get when it comes to electoral mathematics. That such a discussion is decidely anti-federalist in scope is simply a bonus for this website.

    I can’t imagine a purpose for it other than advertising for the home team though I’m sure the next time the Republicans gain a bunch of seats we will see it from them too.

  22. Pro Libertate,

    “Neither party has anything approaching a mandate to do much of anything. Heck, even the policy on Iraq appears to lack a majority view, except maybe to do something different.”

    1. End the war in Iraq.

    2. Raise the minimum wage.

    3. Get the federal budget and deficit under control.

    The Democrats have a strong mandate on those three items. It certainly doesn’t add up to a broad philosophy of governance, but there we are.

  23. joe,

    You know, I don’t think the Democrats are united on ending the war. Sure, most probably want to put a deadline on our withdrawal, but is that really necessarily ending things? Remember what happened to Nixon, too. There’s a mighty temptation to try to do things right. Also, conduct of the war really isn’t in the Democrats’ hands. Murtha’s already been quoted publicly as saying that the one real power Congress has–to cut funding–is not even remotely an option. It would be eating improperly prepared political fugo to abandon troops in the field.

    I agree that there’s unity on the minimum wage issue, and I think that Bush will join in on the fun. Naturally, as a libertarian, I oppose such things, but it’s nothing new and transformative. I’d prefer a stronger economy and less government meddling–likely items that would strongly correlate, though we’ll never test that.

    If getting the budget and deficit under control involves reducing spending, then I’m all ears. If it means jacking my taxes and continuing to increase spending, then all you’re telling me is that what I can expect is more of the same, slightly different flavor. Great.

    As for the word mandate, that’s nonsense. Even the GOP’s “revolution” in 1994–involving a far more coherent philosophy–lacked “mandate” status. If this Congress wants to clean house and really do some home improvement, I’ll be happy to applaud it. But it won’t. Things seem to be going in one direction, and all I can hope for is gridlock, not positive improvements.

    I wish that Democrats would really realize that all of the abuses that they hated so much during the GOP reign of terror really need to end. Instead, I fear that we’ll just start hearing cries of “My turn, my turn!”

  24. John, it took you 55 minutes to go from complaining about name-calling to engaging in it your self. You can do better than that.

    “When Republicans win, it is because Bush is Hitler and is setting up a fascist state and stole the election.” (14:05)

    “Murtha is borderline insane if you ever see him in public. He makes Howard Dean [seem] normal and well adjusted.” (15:00)

    I’ll demonstrate.

    Posters should engage in more adult and responsible commentary. Personal attacks are not only uncalled for, they do not advance the argument. (17:25)

    Awww … Poor wittle Johnny-wonny got his feewings hurt by the election. All the bad Democwats gonna make him cwy. Boo, hoo! (17:26)

    That’s how it’s done, Johnny boy.

  25. A Conservative Plan for Iraq

    Anyone who questions the lack of a realistic and comprehensive Iraq strategy is labeled a friend of fascism by the Republican leadership. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) recently said, “I wonder if [Democrats] are more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people.” Republicans are paralyzed with the fear of being thought ineffective on national security and the war.

    Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership cannot seem to accept that-regardless of how we got there-we are in Iraq. They have not made a convincing case that an arbitrary phased or date-certain troop withdrawal is in the best long-term interest of the United States. Rather, they seem to think that withdrawal will undo the decision to have gone to war. Rubbing President Bush’s nose in Iraq’s difficulties is also a priority.

    This political food fight is stifling the desperately needed public discussion about a meaningful resolution to the fire fight. Most Americans know Iraq is going badly. And they know the best path lies somewhere between “stay the course” and “get out now”.

    Some Truths

    1) Iraq is having a civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites. The Kurds will certainly join, if attacked. It may not look like a civil war, because they don’t have tanks, helicopters, and infantry; but they are fighting with what they have.

    2) Vast oil revenues are a significant factor behind the fighting. Yes, there are religious and cultural differences-but concerns about how the oil revenue will be split among the three groups make the problem worse.

    3) Most Iraqis support partitioning Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish regions. (Their current arrangement resulted from a pen stroke during the British occupation, not some organic alignment.)

    4) Most citizens of the Middle East who support groups that kill and terrorize civilians-such as Hezbollah, Hamas, or al Qaeda-in part because of their aggressive stance against Israel and the United States, but also because they provide much needed social services, such as building schools.

    5) Both Republican and Democratic administrations have spent decades doing business with the tyrants who run the Middle East in exchange for oil and cheap labor. This has been the one of the rallying calls of Bin Laden and Hezbollah-that we support tyrants who abuse people for profits. In fact, our latest trade deals with Oman and Jordan actually promote child and slave labor; it’s so bad the State Department had to issue warnings about rampant child trafficking in those countries.

    6) Iran is using the instability in Iraq to enhance its political stature in the region. Leaving Iraq without a government that can stand up to Iran would be very destabilizing to the region and the world.

    From the U.S. perspective, this is all mostly about energy. As things stand, a serious oil supply disruption would devastate our economy, threaten our security, and jeopardize our ability to provide for our children.

    New Directions

    Success in Iraq and the Middle East in general requires us to work in three areas simultaneously: (1) fostering a more stable Middle East region, including Iraq, (2) pursuing alternative sources of oil, and (3) developing alternatives to oil. To these ends we must:

    1) Insure that the oil revenues are fairly and transparently split among all three groups: Shiite, Sunni, and Kurds based on population.

    2) Allow each group to have a much stronger role in self government by creating three virtually-autonomous regions. Forcing a united Iraq down their throats is not working. Our military would then be there in support a solution that people want, rather than one they are resisting.

    3) Become a genuine force for positive change, thus denying extremist groups much of their leverage. Driving a fair two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem should be our first priority. We should also engage in projects that both help the average Middle Easterner and Americans, such as supporting schools that are an alternative to the ones that teach hate and recruit terrorists. We should also stop participating in trade deals that promote child and slave labor by insisting on deals that include livable wages and basic labor rights.

    4) Declare a Marshal Plan to end our Middle Eastern energy dependency with a compromise between exploring for new sources, reducing consumption, and developing of alternative energies. For example, we should re-establish normal relations with Cuba so we can beat China to Cuba’s off-shore oil. We should also redirect existing tax breaks for Big Oil into loan guarantees for alternative energy companies.

    Once we no longer need so much oil from the Middle East, we can begin winning over its people by using our oil purchases to reward positive and peaceful behavior from their leaders. This would ultimately reduce tensions and encourage prosperity in the region.

    We will have to live with the threat of Islamic radical terrorism forever; but these solutions are a start to reducing the threat. Both parties have to put politics aside and put together an honest and reasonable plan that the American understand.

  26. When Dems win they have a mandate. When Republicans win, it is because Bush is Hitler and is setting up a fascist state and stole the election.

    as I recall, it was Bush and the GOP who started this mandate crap in 2004 when they spun a 3 point popular vote margin as a ‘mandate’.

    And the real metric for last week’s election AFAIAC, is the House and Senate seats, not the cumulative popular vote totals. If I recall correctly, not one single Democratic incumbent in either the House or Senate was defeated. That would make the GOP about 0 for 200 in knocking off sitting Dems.

    I’d say that’s quite a mandate and quite a repudiation of GOP rule.

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