Even a landslide doesn’t equal a mandate – Tennessee Lookout

Mayor-elect Freddie O’Connell won in a landslide last Thursday.  

He secured nearly two-thirds of the vote against a quality candidate, Alice Rolli. He ran an impressive campaign from start to finish and his speeches and response to countless questions showed what he wanted to accomplish as mayor, while demonstrating a deep understanding of our city. It was a textbook campaign. 

His electoral success underscores the importance of the message over money. If you have a good message, voters respond. And, if you have the right message, money will follow as well. His record-setting war chest makes that point forcefully.  

Our soon-to-be mayor and his team have much to celebrate, as do the new members of the Metro Council. But while the mayoral election was a landslide, no one should assume the election was a “mandate” for any specific policies. That would be a mistake and could lead to missteps once O’Connell and the members of the City Council take the oath of office.   

The truth of the matter is that elections provide limited information about voters’ views on public policy. A vote for a candidate only indicates that you, the voter, favor one contender more than the other. It does not even indicate that you liked the candidate you pulled the lever for. Some citizens may have been voting for the lesser of two evils, so to speak. 

We can all try to infer some meaning from an election about policy, but the facts are that a ballot for O’Connell contains very little information on the voters’ views on policy. Consider that many surely voted for him but also supported the new Tennessee Titans stadium — a point of political controversy. 

This point becomes clear when we understand the historical origins of the term “mandate.” It arose during the time of Edmund Burke, an 18th century politician and philosopher in England. In the elections Burke competed in, it was possible to discern a mandate: at the time, the size of districts in Parliament was often only around 250 voters — not the nearly 115,000 people who went to the polls last week (let alone the millions who vote in our national elections).   

Elections provide limited information about voters’ views on public policy and a vote for a candidate only indicates that you, the voter, favor one contender more than the other. Thus, a ballot for O’Connell contains very little information on the voters’ views on policy.

Further, and importantly, voting back then was public. The secret ballot was not used in the time of Burke. Voters came to the town square to discuss the election, indicating who they would be voting for. In that kind of intimate setting, candidates could learn firsthand why people were or were not voting for them. But that is no longer true. 

While a mandate for specific policies is not possible today, the campaign and culminating election still conveyed some messages from voters. It would be fair to say that Nashvillians want the city to get on the “right track,” a phrase Mayor-elect O’Connell cleverly used in his own advertising. 

What exactly constitutes the “right track” is murky. But it seems very much that Mayor-elect O’Connell will work with community leaders to find the best solutions to our problems. And it is clear from survey data, including the Vanderbilt Poll, that the public very much wants problems solved, not gridlock and ideological warfare.  

As O’Connell and the Council roll up their sleeves, it would also be wise to listen to all voices. The solutions to our problems will not be found in one ideology, but rather a careful assessment of the relevant evidence and thoughtful consideration of all perspectives.  

As the demands of campaigning transition to governing, our city leaders should follow the wisdom of Howard Baker, the legendary senator from Tennessee. When asked about why he worked across the aisle, he would note the obvious, but often forgotten, point that “the other guy might be right.” This is sage advice, and adopting it would serve our city well, especially as we grapple with the many problems that confront our city today.

It is also worth pointing out that listening to all voices and reaching across the aisle might help the city in its dealings with the state legislature. We need to find ways to build bridges, not barricades. And our state legislators might also be more open to listening as they think through the lessons from the recent special session.

Team O’Connell should, of course, continue to celebrate a decisive victory. They have earned it by working hard over the last 18 months. Of course, new tasks and new demands loom. Given what we saw in his campaign, Nashvillians have good reason to believe  O’Connell is more than up to the task. Or to put it another way, the bachelorettes should be looking over their shoulders. 



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