Defining Bush's "Mandate"
November 5, 2004
Winning 51 percent of the popular vote in Tuesday's election, Bush
administration officials were quick to declare that the results
a "mandate" for Bush's second term. This interpretation of the
caught hold in the mainstream media-- a sign perhaps that White House
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
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
Will Boost Bush's Authority, Reach," while reporting that Bush "will
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
"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
wins the majority of the vote and a mandate for his second term."
Wolf Blitzer (11/3/04) offered his assessment that Bush is "going to
he's got a mandate from the American people, and by all accounts he
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
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
not be called a "mandate." Columnist Margaret Carlson, writing in the
Angeles Times (11/4/04), posed the question bluntly: "What kind of
does he think he has with a 51 percent win?" More journalists might
to ask the same question.
While White House officials tout the total vote count for Bush as
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
(11/5/04), "It's true that President Bush got more votes than any
candidate for president in history. He also had more people voting
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,
gaining 59 percent four years later. Lyndon Johnson was the choice of
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
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.
has that-- but so does just about every president, so it's hardly
newsworthy. It is understandable that the Bush administration would
its victory as evidence of a "mandate" for pursuing its second-term
agenda. Responsible journalists, however, should refrain from simply
amplifying White House spin.