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An Obama Mandate?

Stewart Tongue
The two-year campaign toward the 2008 vote — and most of the election-night coverage — focused on the important question of who would ascend to the U.S. presidency. As the results rolled in, it became clear that Barack Obama was putting together a swift and decisive victory. However, the most important question after the election is, "What kind of a mandate was Obama granted by the people to move forward?"

A mandate is the authorization to act in a particular way on public issues given by the electorate to its representative. For example, when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, the voting data established that the will of the people, overall, was changing with regard to the Iraq war, based on the election of a new Democrat majority in Congress and the specific exit polling data about the war.

So, while Bush did win the election in 2004, his mandate to prosecute the war in Iraq was clearly weaker than he had hoped when he presented his plan and asked for the support of the people he was sworn to serve.

Now, even as Obama can revel in an Electoral College victory, with a margin of nearly 200 points, he must also look more deeply at the election data — if he actually wants to be able to lead the nation effectively. As of this moment, the states of Missouri and North Carolina are still too close to call, and the popular vote, which counts the individual vote of each citizen, stands at 63 million for Obama (52 percent) and 55 million for McCain (46 percent).

Obama also appears to have won 28 to 30 of the 52 states in the union. That does make Obama one of the few U.S. presidents in recent memory to be elected to his first time by a clear majority. However, it also demonstrates that 55 million people in this country felt strongly enough about not wanting him as their leader that they went out and voted against him. Add to that the fact only 100 million of the roughly 300 million people in this country actually voted, and the strength of his mandate seems a lot more diluted than the Electoral College results would otherwise suggest.

Determining exactly what the "will of the people" is in the U.S. brings to light the complexities of what is known as exit polling. In the U.S., all voting is done privately, and only the resulting vote is actually counted, not the reasoning of each voter. Political parties and pundits attempt to sort out that reasoning forensically by asking voters a series of survey questions as they exit the polls. They also try to piece together the logic of the election by looking at which senatorial or gubernatorial candidates won their local elections.

It should be stated clearly that this process is much more art than science and that exit polls have been flatly incorrect in the past, even on the most basic question of which candidate voters had selected.

Looking at the results with a cautious eye, the exit polling data does seem to offer some explanation of why Obama won and what the country is authorizing him to do. For example, Obama and McCain were nearly even among male voters (49 percent to 48 percent), but among female voters, Obama had a wide, 13-percent margin of victory (56 percent to only 43 percent). In sorting the votes by age of the voter, Obama showed stark results by amassing a 34 percent victory (66 percent to only 32 percent) when looking at the 18-to-29-year-old voter demographic. The numbers were much closer among voters 30 to 64, and McCain actually won among Americans more than 65 years of age with an 8 percent margin of victory (53 percent to 45 percent).

Those numbers speak loudly about Obama's constituency being young, energetic, and largely female. It also shows that adding vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket did not have the effect on female voters that the McCain camp was hoping for in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's primary defeat.

On the issue of race, according to the exit polls, 57 percent of white men and 53 percent of white women voted for McCain. Meanwhile, 95 percent of black men and 96 percent of black women voted for Obama. So, while black voters composed only 12 percent of the total voting population, their near unanimity was a key factor in the election and suggests the formation of a much more stable coalition than existed in past elections. One wonders if endorsements late in the campaign by strong black Republican figures like Colin Powell had an impact or whether black voters were truly going to vote "for the black guy" no matter who it was, as some pundits have suggested.

Also of interest were the numbers from the Latino segment of the population, one of the fastest-growing demographics in the nation. Sixty-four percent of Latino men and 68 percent of Latino women voted for Obama. It is believed that the large Cuban population in Florida, which has historically voted Republican, may now be leaning toward the Democrats and that distinction is likely what allowed Obama to carry the important swing state of Florida, based on the returns from its key counties.

When one examines the exit data by income levels, things get even more interesting. Obama openly campaigned on the idea that he would not be raising taxes on the 95 percent of citizens who earn less than $250,000 per year. Implicit in that promise is that he would, in fact, be raising taxes on anyone who makes more than $250,000 per year. Among voters who earn more than $200,000 per year, 52 percent voted for Obama, even while facing the promise that he would be raising their taxes.

Among voters who earn $50,000 per year or less, the Obama victory was stronger. However, among people earning $50,000 to $200,000 per year, McCain actually won by a small margin. The results suggest that either people earning $50,000 to $200,000 a year did not believe Obama or that they voted against their own financial self-interest much in the same way as people who earned over $200,000 per year.

Segmented by educational levels, Obama scored a margin of 28 percent among the 4 percent of voters who do not have a high-school education. He also managed a wide 18-percent margin among the 17 percent of voters who have a postgraduate degree. However, among the 79 percent majority of Americans who have a high school or college degree, his margin of victory was only a couple of percentage points. It seems clear that Obama resonates with the highly educated and uneducated, but among the so-called "average" American population, his victory was much more narrowly defined.

The most telling statistical category of all appears to be that of ideology. Among Americans who identified themselves as liberals, Obama took 88 percent of the vote, which was largely expected. Among the majority of Americans who describe themselves as moderates, Obama took 60 percent of the vote, which suggests that most Americans did not identify with John McCain's self-proclamation that he and his running mate were mavericks more than Republicans. However, among voters who identified themselves as conservatives, McCain won only 78 percent of the vote, while Obama managed to bring in a strong 20-percent minority in that category.

The data suggest that, while McCain failed to establish himself as a maverick in the mind of most moderates, his attempt to do so cost him the support of many conservatives, who felt he was moving too far left for their liking. That information suggests there is a more serious ideological fissure in the Republican Party itself that needs to be fixed if the GOP hopes to regain prominence.

Two things become undeniably clear if you spend a few hours analyzing all of the voting data state by state and nationally. First, there is no doubt that Obama ran a better campaign. In terms of winning the political game within the Electoral College, Obama's sweep of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Michigan and Pennsylvania (each by only a small margin of victory) demonstrates that his message and ability to bring out supporters on Election Day were superior to McCain's. However, the second, and more important, fact that can be taken from the results is that Obama's mandate is much narrower than his Electoral College statistics might suggest.

Now the choice is his, and Obama can choose to lead in a way that helps him maintain support from 51 percent of the population toward getting elected to a second term, as did George W. Bush… or he can attempt to become an iconic figure by using his first term to try and gain the support of the large minority of voters who did not support him in this election.

Building a government with people from both parties in important positions of power and starting work on issues that have wide support from both sides of the nation, such as energy-independence initiatives, will do much more good for his legacy and for the country than trying to ram volatile issues such as healthcare reform down the throats of the people who did not support him by making use of the brute force of the Democrat majority now in Congress.

Will Obama be an iconic leader and the first president of a new era in American strength — or a colossal failure in a string of Presidents who have left the nation more divided than it was when they were sworn to serve it? At the very least, Obama now has enough of a mandate to make that decision for himself and the three hundred million people he leads.

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