- Mandate Politics
No sooner does an electoral campaign end than a new battle begins—the struggle to define the meaning of the results. This process affects politicians' subsequent choices in important ways, yet it has received limited attention. This valuable study helps to remedy that unfortunate neglect. The authors propound a clear thesis: Unexpected election results affect the behavior of members of Congress by altering their views of public opinion. Anticipated outcomes, even landslides, provide no new information. Yet unexpected results favorable to one party create perceived "mandates," encouraging the policy ambitions of legislators from the winning side and tactical retreat by those in the losing camp. The largest shifts in voting patterns following mandate elections are found among moderates and those whose margins of victory changed notably. These changes are short-lived, but can have important policy consequences.
Support for this thesis consists of content analysis of newspapers and statistical studies of Congressional voting. The authors use the former to identify cases in which post-election perceptions of a mandate were common. They deploy the latter to show that, in such cases, legislators adjust their voting behavior in the direction of the perceived shift in [End Page 480] public opinion. The authors find evidence of a "mandate effect" following only three elections within the period that they examine: 1964, 1980, and 1994. The last case is interesting in that mandates are usually associated with presidents, yet the authors contend that only electoral shocks that affect Congress produce mandate perceptions. The authors' quantitative analyses are well executed and convincing, and their recounting of episodes in political history is reliable—a rare combination.
This study, however, is not without limitations. It is based on voting scales that do not account for the changes in the agenda on which legislators vote. Showing that Congressional voting patterns following "mandate elections" differ from those in "normal" years would have strengthened the authors' case.
The authors profess agnosticism as to the accuracy of mandate perceptions. But it is hard to be sanguine about the possibility that misunderstanding drives policy shifts. Hence, they insist that scholars underestimate the extent of "issue voting," that mandate perceptions only convince legislators to do the public's bidding and that in other cases "gridlock" prevails. Nonetheless, much evidence suggests that swing voters are driven less by programmatic concerns than judgments about incumbents' record on such consensual goals as prosperity, peace, and avoiding scandal. The authors' claims about gridlock's inevitability in the absence of mandate perceptions are exaggerated as well.
The authors' exclusive focus on the years from 1960 to 2002 is limiting. A broader study might have answered more questions. For example, despite President Truman's upset victory in 1948, Congress rejected most of his "Fair Deal" program. Similarly, although the extent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's and Congressional Democrats' triumph in 1936 was unexpected, Roosevelt's legislative successes in 1937 were few. Is surprise necessary but insufficient for a mandate? The absence of scientific election polling before the 1930s may have enhanced the potential for surprise among politicians. Were there more mandates in those days?