How important was Barack Obama’s victory? By what measure can he be said to have secured a “mandate”? How does his election compares to others? And how do voters in this election compare to others?
All good questions. Those of the president’s party with positions in the press claim that his victory was a “mandate”, by which they mean, “Whatever he says goes.” Yet even Barack Obama’s most ardent apologist must admit that the man thinks rather well of himself: the president can often be heard saying (to those willing to listen), “I won.”
Obama was given just under 66 million votes; his opponent came close with 61 million. The exact margin of victory—where I use the word “exact” loosely1—was 5 million votes. It is by those 5 million votes the president is said to have a mandate.
PER CAPITA SUPPORT
Let’s see how much that margin meant, by examining first this picture. (In all these pictures, Barack Obama is found in the last two data points.)
This is the percent of the citizens of the United States who voted for each president (black) and his challenger (red), since 1824. Just under 21% of us said, “Barack’s our man.” Which is to say, only 1 in 5 of us voted for him, while the remaining 4 in 5 either wanted somebody (or nobody) else or were ineligible to vote.
Incidentally, this plot also shows that the theoretical Democracy of one-man-one-vote was, is, and always will be a fiction. There will always be a substantial portion citizens who, in any given election, are ineligible to vote. This means others must decide their fate. We’ll speak of this again another day.
The plot indicates five voting regimes: pre-Civil war (white), the start of the 15th Constitutional Amendment (light blue; prohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude), the 19th Amendment (pink; women’s suffrage), the 24th (dark blue; prohibition of poll taxes), and the 26th (yellow; allowing teenagers to vote).
These regimes make it difficult to compare voting performance across time. Many fewer citizen’s were eligible to vote in 1824 than in 2012. So perhaps, in this slice, it is best only to examine the yellow area, when all things are more-or-less equal for all contestants. Not entirely equal, of course, because the demographic status of the USA is under constant flux: the percent of 18-year-olds in 1972 was different than it was in 2012. The racial composition and other demographics were also shifting.
Nevertheless, since 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984 won the highest percent of citizens’ votes, at 23.1%. Next up was Obama’s previous election in 2008 at 22.8%. Third place was Richard Nixon in 1972 at 22.5%. Fourth place was—wait for it—George W. Bush in 2004 at 21.2%. Obama’s current election places him fifth at 20.9%.
In other words, Reagan, Nixon, and GW Bush had more of the public’s confidence; or rather, more of the public riding on his election.
If we take the whole of US history, Lyndon Johnson (22.6%), both of Dwight Eisenhower’s terms (21.8%, 21.2%), and Franklin Roosevelt’s second term (21.7%) were still higher.
It’s worthwhile to examine the percent of citizens eligible to vote, as shown next.
Here the effect of the Amendments is readily discernible: though some demographic shifts are apparent too, particularly in the light blue period, where child mortality began to wane. The dramatic shift of female suffrage is plain, as is the inclusion of teenagers. There are some odd bumps, but not much should be read into these, since this plot is derived from voter turnout estimates, which are subject to error. It’s a rough job to count voter and votes (especially in Chicago).
Next is turnout itself, which I repeat is inexact. The plot shows both turnout as a percent of eligible voters (black) and as a percent of citizens (red; per capita). This is total voters, regardless of whom they voted for.
Interesting that before female suffrage between about 70% and 80% of eligible citizens voted, a rate which fell to about 60% and held until teenagers were included, where the rate further sunk to about 50-55%. This means that more men than women, and adults than teenagers voted. The latter isn’t surprising, but the former might be. Of course, it’s also possible, even probable that mixed with that phenomenon is this one: with the expansion of the electorate came a decrease in voting enthusiasm.
The closer we move to a theoretical democracy (one-person-one-vote) the more apathetic the voter. And with good reason, too. Think of it this way. If the only voters are me, you, and the Blonde Bombshell, we’re almost certain to show up and decide who is president. The three of us have immense power. But if you swell this to 315 million (the 2012 population) our voting power shrinks to near zero. Practically speaking, we have to figure in the Electoral College and invidual States, but you get the idea.
The red line shows the per-capita percent, which increased (at least) because of each Amendment. It also popped up for George W. Bush’s reelection and both of Barack Obama’s elections. This alone doesn’t make either president popular, but it does say that both were motivators. They, and the circumstances surrounding their election, caused more people to scurry to the polls. (Anybody want to bet a Joe “Wakka Wakka” Biden run would garner as much interest?)
The final envelope, please. We’re about to decide how much of a mandate our current president has, which is told in this picture.
This is the margin of victory shown three ways (note the scale change): percent of total votes cast (red), percent per capita (black), and percent total eligible voters (green). The negative results are those times the popular vote and the Electoral College vote differed, which happened four times: John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and George W. Bush (2000).
Larger values are more indicative of mandates.
However you slice it, Barack Obama does not come even close to a “mandate.” He actually comes in near the bottom for percent total votes cast and percent total voters; he’s in the lower middle for percent per capita. So low is he that only an acts of hubris, historical ignorance, or prevarication would allow one to say he does have a mandate.
Even his first election was not a mandate. Indeed, by all three measures he was no better than the middle or near the bottom. Why, Obama was bested by, to pick a name at random, William H. Taft! Obama had more a mandate than Bush II, but didn’t come close to Bush I, nor Clinton, nor Reagan, nor etc. Obama did beat out Carter.
Some will say, “Yes, Briggs, I see your statistics. But still he won. He is our president, with all the rights, trappings, and access to celebrities that that position implies.” This is true. But a president is leader of only one branch of three co-equal divisions of government. He is not monarch and cannot legislate by Executive Order, no matter how popular you think he is.
And he isn’t that popular. That’s what these numbers show.
Update Typos (grr) fixed. Thanks, Jim, Bill, and others.
1Population data was compiled from the US Census Bureau, with linear extrapolations between decades prior to 1900. Turnout was found here and here. The percent turnout differs in different sources: it is often an estimate, which means it is the product of statistical models, the precisions of which I don’t know. Meaning, all results above are not entirely certain.