This is morning, one thing is clear: Barack Obama has won a clear majority of both electoral and popular votes. The polls were not all that far off on the final total, ending up with a respectable record of what states went for which candidate.
But to read nearly every major news outlet, publication, and blog this morning, you’d never know it—in an instant, everyone has moved on to the more important question of the hour, “What does this all mean?” Does Obama have a mandate, and what is that mandate? Mandates are about meaning, and mandates, like meaning, are made through the efforts of legitimation and assertion and the politics of creating a story of what this election was about.
Many will look into the poll numbers searching for a meaning to this election. Obama drove up turnout of African-Americans. He won college-educated whites. He increased the percentage of Hispanics voting for a democrat. Voters said the economy was their top issue by an overwhelming margin. Young voters went for Obama, older voters went for Obama but there were more younger voters than older voters. Poll-watchers will pour over the vote tallies, the turn-out numbers, and the exit polls, parsing the numbers, looking for that key constituency that seemingly put Obama over the top.
Indeed, the numbers can show certain trends that are important and telling. But there are just as many numbers to temper that optimism. Obama underperformed Senate candidates in several states—most notably North Carolina and Virginia. The Democrats didn’t seem to pick up as many seats in both the House and Senate as once seemed likely.
We are already looking look to see how Obama won. Was it his expansion of the electorate? His superior ground game? His massive financial advantage? His debate performance? Public dissatisfaction with George W. Bush? The implosion of Sarah Palin? Obama’s policy proposals? How does one evaluate the causal impact of each of these elements on the outcome of the election? In practice, its next to impossible, as they are not independent of each other, and isolating the relative weight of each is more the job of historians and academics than the chattering classes.
The reality is, numbers do not make a mandate. The mandate comes from the story that will become the conventional narrative as to how Obama won the campaign and the narrative of his governing agenda. The stakes in these election post-mortems are high, as it sets the priorities for the governing of the country. If, for example, this is merely a reaction to an unpopular administration, Obama has a narrow road to only advance centrist policy proposals. If, however, this was a broad embrace of a new generation of leadership, Obama has a mandate to enact a broad agenda of reform. Should Obama tack to the center, or should he boldly push all planks of his agenda? The recommendations differ—but its important to recognize that these recommendations are not just mere analysis of the art of the possible, they are part of the process of forming the narrative as to what this election means. The election isn’t over when the voting is done, as the process of establishing what those votes mean has only just begun.