The Elusive Mandate: Searching for Meaning in Presidential Elections

Almost 50 years ago, eminent Harvard political scientist V. O. Key Jr. described in his book The Responsible Electorate an electorate “moved by concern about central and relevant questions of public policy, of governmental performance, and of executive personality.” Bartels assesses how well Key’s optimistic portrait of the American electorate holds up in light of the subsequent half-century of electoral research. He concludes that presidential election outcomes are mostly determined by factors unrelated to central and relevant questions of public policy and governmental performance.

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Photo courtesy of Larry M. BartelsPhoto courtesy of Larry M. BartelsLarry M. Bartels is the May Werthan Shayne Professor of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. He has published extensively on American electoral politics, public opinion, public policy, and political representation. His most recent book, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press, 2008), was cited by the New York Times as one of the “economics books of the year” and received the 2009 Gladys M. Kammerer Award for the best book on US national policy. His Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice (Princeton University Press, 1988) received the 1989 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award for the best book on government, politics, or international affairs. Bartels was educated at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley, and has taught at the University of Rochester and Princeton University. He has served as vice president of the American Political Science Association, chair of the board of overseers of American National Election Studies, and nonpartisan member of the New Jersey Apportionment Commission. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the National Academy of Sciences.