These are the precursors to the high-stakes debate that will follow Obama's likely victory on November 4. Here's a handy clip 'n' save guide to what you should expect:
(1) Many people will proclaim falsely that the election represents a "realignment." However, the idea that some elections represent discontinuous breaks from the past that permanently shift political alignments has been discredited in political science.
(2) There will be a strenous battle over whether Obama and/or Congressional Democrats have a "mandate." As I argued back in 2004, there will be no correct answer to this debate -- mandates, like realignments, are essentially a social construction:
The best work I've seen on this is a recent American Journal of Political Science article by Jim Stimson, David Peterson, and two other political scientists (236K PDF). They define a mandate as essentially a social construction - a collective interpretation of election results that carries an informational signal to nervous incumbents worried about re-election. In response, members of Congress deviate from their normal voting patterns in the direction of the mandate for some period of time, particularly those whose winning margins decreased in the previous election (they give this period a half-life of approximately 150 days). The authors provide some useful empirical tests of this hypothesis, examining the 1964, 1980 and 1994 elections as the three most recent "mandate" elections (based on coding of media content). 1980 appears to have had by far the biggest impact on individual Congressional voting behavior.
(3) Media Matters and I documented numerous commentators asserting that Bush had a "mandate" even though his victory was one of the narrowest by an incumbent president in American history. Will those same commentators declare that Obama has a mandate after what is likely to be a more convincing victory?
(4) The most important question, however, is whether a "mandate" response is even possible in 2009. The last perceived Democratic mandate was after the 1964 election. Since then, the GOP has become a vastly different party. In the current political context, it's hard to imagine too many Republican incumbents voting for, say, Obama's initial tax and budget proposals the way many Democrats did with Reagan in 1981. Won't the Grover Norquists of the world threaten to back primary challengers against anyone who helps Obama pass his agenda?
Update 10/22 1:26 PM: Let the realignment claims begin! Beneath a loaded picture of Obama praying with a group of African Americans Drudge is touting a Zogby poll that John Zogby is suggesting could reveal a "realignment":
Anything can happen, but time is running short for McCain. These numbers, if they hold, are blowout numbers. They fit the 1980 model with Reagan's victory over Carter -- but they are happening 12 days before Reagan blasted ahead. If Obama wins like this we can be talking not only victory but realignment...
For the record, Reagan received 55% of the two-party vote and 489 electoral votes. Obama may come close to Reagan's popular vote numbers (Pollster.com has him at 53.7% of the two-party vote) but there's no way Obama will equal that electoral vote total -- Sam Wang's meta-analysis currently predicts approximately 360 electoral votes with a 95% confidence interval of approximately 330 to 370.
Update 10/22 4:30 PM: After talking with my colleagues here at Duke, let me amend what I said about realignment. Obama's election may be seen in retrospect as part of a realigning trend away from the Republicans. There's no question that the 2006 and 2008 elections will represent a historic swing toward Democratic control of government. If you don't believe me, look at the Pollster.com House and Senate maps. The question is whether the trend will continue in 2010 and whether Democratic dominance will persist long-term. We won't know the answers to those questions with any certainty for a while.