In the current issue of The Forum, Georgetown political scientist Hans Noel has an excellent piece on political myths called "The Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don't." It's lengthy, something you should set aside for when you have some spare time during the day, but it's worth reading in full. That said, there is one point I want to highlight now, because it will be very salient in about three weeks:
Take items #1, #2, and #3 together, and it is hard to interpret elections the way that politicians and pundits want us to. Economic fundamentals guide voters who might not have well-defined attitudes to vote in a system that cannot satisfy all the demands of democratic decision-making. This is not a formula for sending a clear message to anyone. [...]
These narratives are created after the fact by people who want you to think one thing or another. Winners claim a mandate to change everything, and losers explain it all away as an anomaly. But exit polls saying that some voters cared about some things are thin reeds on which to spin out the will of the people.
Noel presents this as proof that "there's no such thing as a mandate," and I accept it. Americans aren't particularly ideological, don't know much about politics or policy, and hold incoherent views about virtually everything. At this point, Republicans are guaranteed to make significant electoral gains; Nate Silver gives the GOP a 72 percent chance of winning a majority in the House, and most forecasters predict a 7 or 8 seat gain in the Senate.
The odds are good that the media will describe this as a mandate for conservative "change," but given the extent to which external conditions and turnout will (probably) rule the day, it's nearly impossible to say anything conclusive about what Americans want out of the results. Also, for what it's worth, it only applies to the 2008 election, and probably explains some of the initial backlash faced by President Obama in the middle days of last year.
-- Jamelle Bouie