In analysis of the Presidential election, I have read a lot of assertions that sound along the lines of “The American people voted against/for X”, where “X” may be “tax cuts for the rich”, “a more equal society”, “uncaring government”, or a thousand other ideas. These commenters and pundits strongly believe that President Obama’s victory — or, in more cases, Governor Romney’s defeat — can be put down to a voting majority’s view on one issue or idea. This assertion supposes that a particular aspect of Governor Romney’s platform or presentation was the key to mitigating the general swing against President Obama.
This is, upon brief reflection, preposterous. For all of political scientists’ attempts to nail down the reasons behind voters’ choices, it is rarely possible to prove that a victorious candidate won her majority or plurality based on a single issue. Because political questions are multifaceted, even the conduct of referenda campaigns will face multiple positive and negative forces. Elections for individual candidates rely on voters answering many such questions, producing countervailing forces on the electorate. Conservative Democrats, progressives, and liberal Republicans all voted for the President to be re-elected, for a variety of different reasons. They may have liked him personally, preferred his policy on health care, or respected his foreign policy choices. At the same time, other voters may have voted for President Obama because they disliked Governor Romney’s presentation of himself or his platform — and many other voters probably voted for Governor Romney because they disliked President Obama.
In short, a vote for a candidate is not necessarily an endorsement of any individual principle for which he stands. The Conservative plurality elected at the last UK general election was not necessarily a mandate for the introduction of elected police commissioners (and the turnout at last week’s police commissioner elections suggests that it certainly was not such a mandate). Voters may like some aspect of the platform of the candidate for whom they vote, they may dislike her opponent, or find her a person with whom it is easier to relate. Voting preferences may be drawn from negative or positive views of the all of the candidates and their platforms. This is bad news for analysts–it means they have to pull apart the countervailing forces–and for politicians who insist that a vote for a person is a vote for every principle that candidate supports.