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We're already thinking about what the 2016 election will mean

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By now everyone is used to lots of horse-race coverage a year or more before a presidential election. But this past summer took it to a new level, with multiple stories about what the eventual election results would mean. These included stories like the one in the New York Times a few months ago about Hillary Clinton's likely path to victory. There have also been pieces like this one, speculating over "what the election will be about," and this one, which theorizes the 2016 contest will be about anger. And, of course, Lawrence Lessig claims that a clear electoral mandate will allow him to get around the usual obstacles and pass major political reform.

It's common for the "mandate" question to surface after the election, or even sometimes a few weeks before. In 2004, Ramesh Ponnuru predicted that George W. Bush would win the election and "make a mandate" for his policy agenda, for example. But we are more than a year from the first votes, and it's not at all clear who the Republican nominee will be. So why the focus on interpreting an election that hasn't taken place?

We are living in an age of mandate politics. This doesn't just mean thinking about whether an election crossed some sort of threshold to be a "mandate" — although plenty of pundits still do this. My research shows that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, presidents have placed more emphasis on the meaning of election results than they used to. Most of my analysis focused on presidential speeches, but I looked at a lot of media sources, and they appeared to follow the pattern. In other words, the media, like politicians, turn toward interpreting elections in response to political factors that aren't, at first glance, obviously connected with election results.

What I found in presidential rhetoric — and in various communications behind the scenes — was a newfound emphasis on the election as a means of informing, and thus legitimating, the policy agenda. From about FDR through Johnson, presidents hoped for electoral mandates in order to convince Congress to pass the agenda they'd already decided on — mandates were a source of power. From Nixon onward, presidents and communications teams talked about mandates as a source of authority — the election results weren't a tool to use when wrangling with Congress, but rather the source of policy formation itself. This is all what social scientists call "constructed," of course — that is, what normal people call "made up." Whether this has resulted in different policy is a much more complicated question, but narratives like mandates shape our understanding of how politics should work, even when they don't correspond to reality.

Invoking the election results to justify policy is more about addressing a legitimacy deficit than it is about the voters or the campaign. Presidents rely on the idea of a mandate when they're on the defensive — when someone questions a policy, when approval ratings are falling, and, more generally, when the office has lost public trust like it did after Vietnam and Watergate. Polarization has also driven this development; presidents are on the defensive more and need to shore up their relationships with their core constituents. This is consistent with what we're seeing now. There are also a couple of factors that explain why mandate narratives might be especially attractive for the 2016 race, even at this early point.

First, it's late in the Reagan era. It doesn't seem accurate to call either party the dominant party in power. And while the differences between the two parties are fairly clear, both parties have a lot debate about their agendas. For Republicans, this means cycling through efforts to define conservatism in post–Iraq War foreign policy, in post–Affordable Care Act social policy, and a heavy dose of populism on the right. For Democrats, we see candidates who helped establish the tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s now working to move away from those positions.

This isn't just a product of the current moment or crop of candidates. This happens about every 40 years: Old coalitions break down, old ideas cycle out. It takes some time, and there are usually signs of visible struggle over how to define the next set of debates and priorities.

In this context, mandates provide meaning and legitimacy. Whether these are remotely related to reality is secondary at best. If elections set the agenda, then we don't need to worry too much about elite infighting. "The People" will decide. A mandate from "The People" will infuse the chosen policies with legitimacy. None of this is true or defensible from an evidence standpoint, but it's understandable that pundits, politicians, and voters would find this narrative comforting.

The other reason goes a bit afield of my earlier research, and relates to the race and inequality issues that have become a big deal over the course of the Obama administration. These were never that far from various political agendas, of course, but recently they've especially come to the fore. The Times piece about Clinton's path to victory drew criticism for its failure to examine the racial implications of emphasizing rural states over "deep blue" states — whose status as such is often driven by urban areas. This gets directly at what it means to define "the people" in an election context — why are the same number of votes in several rural states more "representative" than the equivalent in a few cities? Nor is this dynamic new — there's a history of tension within the Democratic Party over race, inclusion, and the ideological direction of the party.

For Republicans, the questions of national identity, race, and ethnicity have become central ones. From Tea Party claims to "take our country back" to the most recent round of candidate dodges on the issue of birthright citizenship, racial and ethnic issues are central to the party's discussions of American identity, which sometimes jarringly exemplify the "anger" that's been described as the defining characteristic of the upcoming contest.

Electoral mandates offer a way to define "the people": the coalition that won the election. Worrying about the geography, ideology, and intentions of that coalition allows us a way of indirectly engaging the more loaded questions about American national identity.

Finally, a similar dynamic may be at work with regard to inequality. There's Lessig's (completely absurd) claim that a popular majority will endorse his reform proposal and thus change its legislative chances. And, of course, there's Sanders/Warren-style economic populism, which emphasizes the voice of "the people" as the solution to wage and wealth gaps that undermine democracy.

Election results pretty much always lend themselves to interpretation. This is apparently even true when the elections haven't happened yet. The answers people come up with are probably less important than the questions they're asking. It's not so much what elections mean, but the political problems that we need them to solve.