What is a Mandate? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Mandates: When Winning…
  • 0:55 When Is A Mandate…
  • 5:15 When A Mandate Is Unclear
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

A mandate occurs when the electorate lets a candidate know they approve of what he/she is doing or wants to do, but how do you know when a mandate is really a mandate? The interpretation of a mandate is nearly as important as the outcome of the election.

Mandates: When Winning Might Not Be Enough

So, you've won the election. Congratulations! You've got to be feeling pretty good. After all, a majority of voters selected you, meaning they preferred you over the other guy.

Of course, they may not have 'preferred' you, not really; they may not have liked you at all, and it's just that they liked the other candidate even less. It's possible they were not choosing the best candidate, but instead the classic 'lesser of two evils.' How do you know if voters really supported you and what you want to accomplish in office?

The idea of a mandate is a pretty hazy one, since there's no legal definition for it and no specific set of circumstances in which you can apply it. But this hasn't stopped many national candidates and political parties from claiming that they had one. In this sense, a mandate, the belief that the electorate broadly supports your plans and has told you so with an electoral victory, is often worth more than the election itself.

When Is a Mandate Really a Mandate?

In a democratic system, having a legitimate right to govern is essential for the government to work at all. This idea, known as legitimacy, is so important that most people don't notice it until it's missing completely. In a stable democracy like the United States, for instance, most people consider themselves bound by an electoral outcome and will support the government, even if they're furious about who actually got elected. This form of legitimacy is considered quite natural in well-established political systems.

Once you have legitimacy with the population, the outcomes of an election can be subject to the idea of a mandate. This is where things get decidedly vague, though, since it's not entirely clear that just 'winning' the election is enough to claim a mandate. The basic idea of a mandate is that the voters in a democracy have signaled very clearly that they support what a given candidate is saying he or she will do; or, if the candidate is an incumbent, approving of what he or she has already accomplished. So, even if you have won the election, have you won by enough?

Roosevelt's Mandate

The case of Franklin Roosevelt is instructive here. Roosevelt ran and won the U.S. presidency in 1932 and immediately proposed a New Deal, a massive series of government programs in order to end the Great Depression. Some of the proposals were successful, some less so; but when he stood for reelection in 1936, Roosevelt put the New Deal and what he had done thus far front and center in his campaign. And the voters supported him; he was re-elected handily.

Four years later, Roosevelt decided to run again, violating the 'two-term' custom that had originated with George Washington (at that time, there was no legal prohibition against it); his re-election that year and then again in 1944 for an unprecedented fourth term, was a strong indicator that the broad American electorate supported both his programs during the Great Depression and his leadership during World War II.

Reagan's Mandate

Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and almost immediately embarked on several major initiatives; most notably, a major tax cut, especially for wealthier Americans. In 1984, when he ran for re-election, a major question existed as to how American voters would react, both to Reagan's policies and to the economic situation. The answer to both was exceedingly positive - Reagan defeated the Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, in the most lopsided victory in presidential history. It would have been hard, after Reagan took 49 out of 50 states, to deny that his mandate was clear.

Truman's Mandate

Sometimes, presidents win the White House in a manner that tends to negate the perception of a mandate. In 1948, Harry Truman was running for re-election at a point in his presidency when he was deeply unpopular. The Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey (who had run previously against Franklin Roosevelt and done better than expected), was the clear frontrunner and thought to be a sure thing for victory.

When Truman surprised many by eking out a win on election night, it ranked as one of the great presidential upsets in modern history, even though Truman was the incumbent. That fact, then, tended to negate the idea that Truman had earned a mandate from the nation. Though he had won, he had done so in a terribly narrow fashion, even with the advantages of incumbency behind him.

Obama's Mandate

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