Winning 51 percent of the popular vote in Tuesday’s election , Bush administration officials were quick to declare that the results constitute a “mandate” for Bush’s second term. This interpretation of the election caught hold in the mainstream media– a sign perhaps that White House spin was triumphing over the actual numbers recorded on Election Day.
The Boston Globe (11/4/04) reported that Bush’s victory grants him “a clear mandate to advance a conservative agenda over the next four years.” The Los Angeles Times (11/4/04) made the somewhat peculiar observation that “Bush can claim a solid mandate of 51 percent of the vote.” USA Today (11/4/04) was more definitive, headlining one story “Clear Mandate Will Boost Bush’s Authority, Reach,” while reporting that Bush “will begin his second term with a clearer and more commanding mandate than he held for the first.” The Washington Post (11/4/04) similarly pointed to Bush’s “clearer mandate,” implying that the election of 2000, in which Bush failed to get even a plurality of the popular vote, was a mandate of sorts, if an unclear one.
Broadcast media also took up the “mandate” theme. MSNBC host Chris Matthews announced at the top of his November 3 broadcast, “President Bush wins the majority of the vote and a mandate for his second term.” CNN ‘s Wolf Blitzer (11/3/04) offered his assessment that Bush is “going to say he’s got a mandate from the American people, and by all accounts he does.” NPR ‘s Renee Montague (11/3/04) also relayed the White House’s spin, before quickly agreeing with it: “The president’s people are calling this a mandate. By any definition I think you could call this a mandate.”
Of course, there are many definitions by which Bush’s narrow victory would not be called a “mandate.” Columnist Margaret Carlson, writing in the Los Angeles Times (11/4/04), posed the question bluntly: “What kind of mandate does he think he has with a 51 percent win?” More journalists might want to ask the same question.
While White House officials tout the total vote count for Bush as evidence of wide support, the increase in voter turnout and the size of the U.S. population also means that greater than usual numbers of voters opposed the victorious candidate. As Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher put it (11/5/04), “It’s true that President Bush got more votes than any winning candidate for president in history. He also had more people voting against him than any winning candidate for president in history.”
And Bush’s slim majority is not all that impressive for an incumbent; Ronald Reagan, for example, claimed 51 percent of the vote in 1980, while gaining 59 percent four years later. Lyndon Johnson was the choice of 61 percent of voters in 1964, as was Richard Nixon in 1972. In terms of margin of victory, Al Hunt observed in the Wall Street Journal (11/4/04), Bush’s victory was “the narrowest win for a sitting president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916.”
If a “mandate” is the same as an uncontested victory, then George W. Bush has that– but so does just about every president, so it’s hardly newsworthy. It is understandable that the Bush administration would tout its victory as evidence of a “mandate” for pursuing its second-term agenda. Responsible journalists, however, should refrain from simply amplifying White House spin.