In today’s New York Times, Matt Bai provides a good analysis of the vagaries of electoral mandates for Republicans and for Democrats in his article A Mandate? Not Really. The roller coaster swing of votes from Democrats to Republicans and back again in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2001 suggests a high degree of voter preference instability. Bai argues, however, that too many elected officials believe that their electoral victory provided them with a public mandate to pursue their party’s partisan politics at the expense of the other party. The voters according to Bai, however, actually want less partisanship in government and more efficiency and integrity in government. Perhaps. What’s interesting is that Bai assumes, like many others, that the results of those elections are a true and clear indication of the public’s preferences. We don’t know whether that is true, primarily because each election represents the preferences of a shifting portion of the public. Depending on how many and who turns out to vote, the preferences of the “public,” if that is understood as the majority of voters, may not be represented by the results of the election.
Voter turnout is, thus, just as if not more important than voting results. In the last several elections, we have seen not only a fluctuation in voter preferences but also a fluctuation in turnout. The absolute percentage of the voting eligible population that voted as well as the proportion of the public representing different racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and class backgrounds varied significantly from one election to the other. Thus, the “public” that voted Barack Obama into the presidency in 2008 was greater in numbers and different in constitution to the public that voted Republicans into office during 2010. Obama had more young people, women, minorities, and seniors turning out to vote in 2008 than turned out in 2010.
Almost 57% of the U.S. voting age population voted in the 2008 election while less than 38% did so in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Elections Project . That swing or decline in turnout of 19% is all we need to know to understand why it appeared like the public were giving Republicans a “mandate” in 2010 and appearing to take away the “mandate” given to Obama in the 2008 election. Similarly, a look at the turnout results broken down by states shows wide discrepancies between 2008 and 2010. Republicans took control of Wisconsin state politics in the 2010 elections but only with votes with a turnout of 49.5% of the voting age population. The Republican 2010 “mandate” in Wisconsin represented, thus, a fraction of that less than 50% turnout! For example, Scott Walker became governor in Wisconsin with 52.3% of the vote. That vote is a little over half of the 49.5% voting turnout or about 26% of the eligible voters in Wisconsin. A public “mandate”? Hardly. This means that the resulting Republican assaults on liberal and Democratic policies, including public unions, were “mandated” by about one-quarter of the voting public! That does not compare favorably with the over 56% of the vote that Obama won in 2008, especially since that Obama majority came from a Wisconsin voter turnout of 69%.
Election analysis is a risky business. What they mean is a lot more difficult to establish than who won. Voters can change their minds. And different voters come out to vote in different elections and years. Nevertheless, it has become far too easy for politicians and the media to read far too much into election results than the numbers actually permit. This is not only bad analysis but a manipulation of the public.
Elections can help us gauge what it is that the public may want. But they do not do so if we do not pay careful attention to what they don’t tell us. The negative consequences of such bad analysis is as much political as it is academic. Here, like in many other facets of our political system, we cannot help but speculate about how money facilitates this dangerous interpretation of the public’s will. There are far too many mechanisms that thwart public will, from campaign financing to the compromised form of ballot systems utilized in voting. The manipulation of electoral results that comes by ignoring turnout is far easier to correct than the others. But it requires that the public be far better informed about voter turnout than they have been up to now.