Was the Budget Deal an Overreaction to the Election?

04/12/2011 12:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2011
  • Brendan Nyhan Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College

The wonkosphere has been debating why President Obama and the Democrats got such a seemingly bad deal in the budget negotiations last week. As several writers have noted, they were in a position of weakness due to their base's preference for compromise. Still, it seems clear that Obama and the Democrats were outmaneuvered in the bargaining process, which drove the outcome surprisingly close to the preferences of the median Republican in the House.

One factor that has received less attention in this debate is the influence of the November 2010 election results. Over the years, I've frequently invoked the pioneering research (PDF) of UNC's Jim Stimson and his co-authors on responses to perceived "mandate" elections, which shows that members of Congress tend to deviate from their normal voting patterns in the direction of the election result for some period of time. Stimson was quoted yesterday saying that this election did not meet the definition of a mandate:

"[The GOP is] right to be nervous about [the Ryan plan]," said James A. Stimson, a University of North Carolina political scientist and a co-author of the recent book "Mandate Politics." By his measure, the resistance of Democrats who still control the White House and Senate means Republicans cannot claim a mandate any more than Mr. Obama could upon taking office in 2009.

It's true that the 2010 election results have not been accepted as a mandate by both parties like 1964, 1980, and 1994 (the post-WWII cases Stimson and his colleagues identify). In this sense, 2010 was more like 2006 or 2008 than 1994. However, as I've suggested before, it's not clear that both parties will ever accept mandate claims in the way they previously did given the level of polarization that now exists. In this sense, 2010 may be something of a "soft mandate," empowering Republicans and pushing Obama and the Democrats to accept deals they otherwise would not have considered. Imagine a world in which Republicans kept the House in 2008 and maintained control in 2010, but the Senate and presidency were configured the same way they are today. Would the GOP have been able to pull off that deal? I'm skeptical.

The irony is that Stimson and his colleagues' research shows that mandate perceptions quickly wear off as politicians realize they have overstated the extent to which public opinion has shifted. Congressional Democrats, for instance, spent most of the Reagan years undoing the 1981 budget, which was passed in a mandate-induced panic. It's likely that this budget deal (and likely future concessions before the debt ceiling vote) will be viewed in a similarly negative fashion by Democrats in the future.

Update 4/12 1:38 PM: TNR's Jon Chait notes that Republicans didn't overreact in the same way after the last two elections, which they blamed (implausibly) on not being conservative enough. It's true. I've previously questioned whether Republicans would ever acquiesce to a mandate interpretation again:

The most important question, however, is whether a "mandate" response is even possible in 2009. The last perceived Democratic mandate was after the 1964 election. Since then, the GOP has become a vastly different party. In the current political context, it's hard to imagine too many Republican incumbents voting for, say, Obama's initial tax and budget proposals the way many Democrats did with Reagan in 1981. Won't the Grover Norquists of the world threaten to back primary challengers against anyone who helps Obama pass his agenda?

Democrats may not agree that the GOP has a mandate for change to the extent they did after the 1994 election, but the ideological asymmetry between the parties means that they are far more vulnerable to post-election panics of the sort we're seeing now.