Comparing Competing Theories on the Causes of Mandate Perceptions


  • Previous versions of this article were presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association and the Midwest Political Science Association where it won the 2002 Patrick J. Fett Award for the Best Paper on the Scientific Study of Congress and the Presidency. We thank Stephen Ansolabehere and Byron Schaeffer for helpful comments at these meetings and Amy Gangl for helping develop the theory of mandates tested here. Address all correspondence to David Peterson.

Lawrence J. Grossback is Adjunct Research Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Institute for Public Affairs at West Virginia University, P.O. Box 6317, Morgantown, WV 26506 ( David A.M. Peterson is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843 ( James A. Stimson is Raymond Dawson Distinguished Professor of Political Science, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, CB# 3265, 362 Hamilton Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 (


The discussion of presidential mandates is as certain as a presidential election itself. Journalists inevitably discuss whether the president-elect has a popular mandate. Because they see elections as too complex to allow the public to send a unitary signal, political scientists are more skeptical of mandates. Mandates, however, have received new attention by scholars asking whether perceptions of mandate arise and lead representatives to act as if voters sent a policy directive. Two explanations have emerged to account for why elected officials might react to such perceptions. One focuses on the president's strategic decision to declare a mandate, the second on how members of Congress read signals of changing preferences in the electorate from their own election results. We test these competing views to see which more accurately explains how members of Congress act in support of a perceived mandate. The results indicate that members respond more to messages about changing preferences than to the president's mandate declaration.