Does Barack Obama Have A Mandate? A Look At The Numbers

How important was Barack Obama’s victory? By what measure can he be said to have secured a “mandate”? How does his election compares to others? And how do voters in this election compare to others?

All good questions. Those of the president’s party with positions in the press claim that his victory was a “mandate”, by which they mean, “Whatever he says goes.” Yet even Barack Obama’s most ardent apologist must admit that the man thinks rather well of himself: the president can often be heard saying (to those willing to listen), “I won.”

Obama was given just under 66 million votes; his opponent came close with 61 million. The exact margin of victory—where I use the word “exact” loosely1—was 5 million votes. It is by those 5 million votes the president is said to have a mandate.


Let’s see how much that margin meant, by examining first this picture. (In all these pictures, Barack Obama is found in the last two data points.)

Figure 1
Figure 1

This is the percent of the citizens of the United States who voted for each president (black) and his challenger (red), since 1824. Just under 21% of us said, “Barack’s our man.” Which is to say, only 1 in 5 of us voted for him, while the remaining 4 in 5 either wanted somebody (or nobody) else or were ineligible to vote.

Incidentally, this plot also shows that the theoretical Democracy of one-man-one-vote was, is, and always will be a fiction. There will always be a substantial portion citizens who, in any given election, are ineligible to vote. This means others must decide their fate. We’ll speak of this again another day.

The plot indicates five voting regimes: pre-Civil war (white), the start of the 15th Constitutional Amendment (light blue; prohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude), the 19th Amendment (pink; women’s suffrage), the 24th (dark blue; prohibition of poll taxes), and the 26th (yellow; allowing teenagers to vote).

These regimes make it difficult to compare voting performance across time. Many fewer citizen’s were eligible to vote in 1824 than in 2012. So perhaps, in this slice, it is best only to examine the yellow area, when all things are more-or-less equal for all contestants. Not entirely equal, of course, because the demographic status of the USA is under constant flux: the percent of 18-year-olds in 1972 was different than it was in 2012. The racial composition and other demographics were also shifting.

Nevertheless, since 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984 won the highest percent of citizens’ votes, at 23.1%. Next up was Obama’s previous election in 2008 at 22.8%. Third place was Richard Nixon in 1972 at 22.5%. Fourth place was—wait for it—George W. Bush in 2004 at 21.2%. Obama’s current election places him fifth at 20.9%.

In other words, Reagan, Nixon, and GW Bush had more of the public’s confidence; or rather, more of the public riding on his election.

If we take the whole of US history, Lyndon Johnson (22.6%), both of Dwight Eisenhower’s terms (21.8%, 21.2%), and Franklin Roosevelt’s second term (21.7%) were still higher.


It’s worthwhile to examine the percent of citizens eligible to vote, as shown next.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Here the effect of the Amendments is readily discernible: though some demographic shifts are apparent too, particularly in the light blue period, where child mortality began to wane. The dramatic shift of female suffrage is plain, as is the inclusion of teenagers. There are some odd bumps, but not much should be read into these, since this plot is derived from voter turnout estimates, which are subject to error. It’s a rough job to count voter and votes (especially in Chicago).


Next is turnout itself, which I repeat is inexact. The plot shows both turnout as a percent of eligible voters (black) and as a percent of citizens (red; per capita). This is total voters, regardless of whom they voted for.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Interesting that before female suffrage between about 70% and 80% of eligible citizens voted, a rate which fell to about 60% and held until teenagers were included, where the rate further sunk to about 50-55%. This means that more men than women, and adults than teenagers voted. The latter isn’t surprising, but the former might be. Of course, it’s also possible, even probable that mixed with that phenomenon is this one: with the expansion of the electorate came a decrease in voting enthusiasm.

The closer we move to a theoretical democracy (one-person-one-vote) the more apathetic the voter. And with good reason, too. Think of it this way. If the only voters are me, you, and the Blonde Bombshell, we’re almost certain to show up and decide who is president. The three of us have immense power. But if you swell this to 315 million (the 2012 population) our voting power shrinks to near zero. Practically speaking, we have to figure in the Electoral College and invidual States, but you get the idea.

The red line shows the per-capita percent, which increased (at least) because of each Amendment. It also popped up for George W. Bush’s reelection and both of Barack Obama’s elections. This alone doesn’t make either president popular, but it does say that both were motivators. They, and the circumstances surrounding their election, caused more people to scurry to the polls. (Anybody want to bet a Joe “Wakka Wakka” Biden run would garner as much interest?)


The final envelope, please. We’re about to decide how much of a mandate our current president has, which is told in this picture.

Figure 4
Figure 4

This is the margin of victory shown three ways (note the scale change): percent of total votes cast (red), percent per capita (black), and percent total eligible voters (green). The negative results are those times the popular vote and the Electoral College vote differed, which happened four times: John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and George W. Bush (2000).

Larger values are more indicative of mandates.

However you slice it, Barack Obama does not come even close to a “mandate.” He actually comes in near the bottom for percent total votes cast and percent total voters; he’s in the lower middle for percent per capita. So low is he that only an acts of hubris, historical ignorance, or prevarication would allow one to say he does have a mandate.

Even his first election was not a mandate. Indeed, by all three measures he was no better than the middle or near the bottom. Why, Obama was bested by, to pick a name at random, William H. Taft! Obama had more a mandate than Bush II, but didn’t come close to Bush I, nor Clinton, nor Reagan, nor etc. Obama did beat out Carter.


Some will say, “Yes, Briggs, I see your statistics. But still he won. He is our president, with all the rights, trappings, and access to celebrities that that position implies.” This is true. But a president is leader of only one branch of three co-equal divisions of government. He is not monarch and cannot legislate by Executive Order, no matter how popular you think he is.

And he isn’t that popular. That’s what these numbers show.

Update Typos (grr) fixed. Thanks, Jim, Bill, and others.



1Population data was compiled from the US Census Bureau, with linear extrapolations between decades prior to 1900. Turnout was found here and here. The percent turnout differs in different sources: it is often an estimate, which means it is the product of statistical models, the precisions of which I don’t know. Meaning, all results above are not entirely certain.


  1. Rich

    Honestly, this should be posted in, “Recreational statistics”. It’s fun but not much else. There was a selection process and Barack Obama got selected. This means he has the job of president and can do or not do whatever a president can do or not do. A discussion about the size of his mandate is entirely beside the point. He got the job. True, his supporters may be crowing about his mandate but that too is meaningless. He’s got enough mandate to do the job. Will he really step back from some decisions saying, “Whoa! I don’t have a big enough percentage margin of victory to do that“. I think not.

    Mind you, I don’t like him either.

  2. Briggs


    Yes, of course he got the job. But the question of interest here—whether or not it is interesting elsewhere I don’t care—is does he have a “mandate”? Answer: no.

  3. Rich

    Perhaps you could say what you mean by mandate? I’m taking it to mean authorisation to act as President so I naturally conclude there’s no more to say once he’s elected.

  4. Briggs


    An excellent question. “Mandate” does not mean “to act as president.” And it has no definite, absolute form, either.

    It is taken to mean that “the country” is behind the ideology of the victor; as I implied, “What he said goes.” I mean those who supported the loser also feel, in a sort of way, that the winner has a free hand. That is, the he needn’t consult the other side. That compromise isn’t of particular necessity. Things like that.

    Obama clearly does not have that, but acts as if he does. Perhaps arrogance comes with the job (though I would argue it does not), but a gentleman learns to mask it. He has not, and even revels in it.

  5. DAV

    “exactly loose” is (what?) 10 times better than “sorta loose”? Where does “kinda loose” rank?

    Mandate or not, all the scary things he promised before the previous election are now on the table for he has nothing to lose (sorta loosely speaking). The only checks: his party does and, thankfully, we no longer have a super-majority rubber stamp.

  6. Rich

    Ah, so very like the way British politician’s use “mandate” too: as a rhetorical trick to silence critics.

    So Obama cries, “the country’s behind me!” and we all shout, “Oh no they’re not!”

    Politics making the transition from theatre to pantomime. Or am I just late catching up.

  7. Think of “mandate” as equivalent to “consensus” in anthropomorphic climate change. It’s how Obama uses it.

  8. Gary

    In theory the three branches are equal, in practice not. With SCOTUS legislating, POTUS ruling by the Executive bureaucracy, and the Congress abdicating it’s responsibility to check the other branches, there is no equality except perhaps in misfeasance. Obama has a mandate because the forth branch of government, the media-complex, says it’s so. As in climate science, the data don’t matter when there’s a story to be promoted.

  9. Speed

    The minority of voters who didn’t vote for Barack Obama have rights. I hold this truth to be self evident.

    The president is president of all the people, not just those with whom he agrees.

    It should be noted that measured in absolute numbers or proportion of votes cast, Barack Obama’s popularity is waning.

    A leader leads by doing what is right, not just what is popular.

  10. William Sears

    In the paragraph following Fig. 3 your conclusion is reversed.

    Also, the term mandate isn’t binary. It makes more sense to speak of the size of an elected official’s mandate. This is determined not just by the margin of victory but also by which party controls the houses of congress. In Canada this is easier to see since we have a parliamentary system and the possibility of a minority government. Our Senate has much less influence.

  11. Ken

    What those numbers seem to show isn’t so much that: ‘he isn’t that popular’ so much as that most presidents aren’t all that “popular.”

    RE: “Perhaps arrogance comes with the job (though I would argue it does not), but a gentleman learns to mask it. He has not, and even revels in it.”

    IT’s NOT SO MUCH arrogance as narcissism–and that has ominous implications. One expert on that trait is Sam Vaknin and he’s gone on record with his analysis: That link leads to others…

    A forensic psychiatrist has the following short essay observation when Obama was an early candidate for his first term, which still holds:

  12. Jim Fedako


    Does this make sense: Interesting that before female suffrage between about 70% and 80% of eligible citizens voted, a rate which fell to about 60% and held until teenagers were included, where the rate further sunk to about 50-55%. This means that more women than men, and more teenagers than adults voted. The latter isn’t surprising, but the former might be.

    Shouldn’t “more” be “less?”

  13. Speed

    Obama bragging about beating Romney is like Washington (98-64) bragging about beating Houston (55-107) in the (2012) MLB.

  14. Doug M

    One man, one vote. So long as I am the man and I have the vote.

    Clinton never had a “mandate.” Bush didn’t for his first term. Does it matter? He has the job.

    “Interesting that before female suffrage between about 70% and 80% of eligible citizens voted, a rate which fell to about 60% and held until teenagers were included, where the rate further sunk to about 50-55%. This means that more women than men, and more teenagers than adults voted.”

    Gock on this, and when fullness comes you will see your logical error.

  15. Sylvain Allard

    It is interesting to see how a victory is consider meager when the reelected president is the first since Eisenhower to receive more than 51% of the vote in both election. And this is without counting the fact that many voters had to wait hours to be able to cast their votes on multiple page ballot, and that we are in recovery of the worst recession/depression since 1929.

    The democrate have also gain seats in both chambers of congress.

    Democrate have also received the majority of votes in the Senate and the chamber of representatives (by over 1 million vote).

    The only reason the Republicans were able to keep the chamber of representatives is because they were in charge of map redistricting.

    Reince Priebus the RNC chair doesn’t hide his desire to apply the map to presidential election.

    What mandate did George W. Bush had in 2001 when he won the election while receiving less vote than Gore.

    Does he have a mandate on the element that were part of his campaign, like rising taxes on the 1%? Yes.

    Congress as the lowest approval rating ever by a wide margin while the president as been lower than other president but is much higher than congress.

  16. Doug: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that a President is only to represent those who elected him and no one else. Others seem to be saying the same thing. The President only works for the good of those who voted for him? Kind of a scary thought, though current events do indicate that is the direction we are heading in. You might consider that over 40% of the population is then basically thrown into serfdom by the larger percentage. In other words, Republicans are now slaves to Obama because he won and no one else’s view matters. That does not seem to be a very good idea.

  17. Doug M


    I am suggesting that the President repesents himself!

  18. Bill Jones

    “more teenagers than adults voted.”


  19. Briggs


    It’s another Typo inserted by my enemies.

  20. MattS

    If you want to talk about a mandate for either parties agenda it would be better to look at the Congressional elections rather than the presidential election.

    Since the House is controlled by the Republicans and the Senate is controlled by the Democrats, the mandate goes to gridlock. All the Representatives and Senators should get together and contemplate their respective belly buttons for the next two years.

  21. Sylvain Allard

    Isn’t that what they have done for the last 2 years.

  22. MattS


    The more they do that the better off the rest of us are.

  23. What if we look at states that elect one republican and one democrat to the senate? What does than mean? It’s just one of those political behaviours I have never understood!

  24. MattS

    There are plenty of people who will deliberately vote for gridlock. I don’t have a link off the top of my head but I have read about studies showing that people will vote for opposite parties for president and congress.

    Given current political realities, gridlock is a libertarian’s best friend.

  25. john robertson

    Interesting way to demonstrate the bloated ego of our elected and appointed royalty.
    I have read on a few blogs, that the President and Democrats in general have very good election results in districts where voter ID is not required and not so healthy results where voter ID is required.
    Any truth to that?
    I had to snicker, when the Democratic Convention insisted on participant IDs but insisted voters should not need them.

  26. Jonathan D

    Since the decline in turnout occurred before women’s suffrage, it doesn’t make much sense to draw any conclusions about male v female voting rates.

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