The twenty-first century is an age of mandate politics – we are preoccupied with understanding the meaning of elections after they take place. Politicians take this seriously and frequently explain their decisions with “I’m doing what I was elected to do.”

Pundits and even political scientists – notorious buzzkills obsessed with models and predictions and data – are trying to figure out what it means for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to have lost to his unlikely opponent, David Brat, in last night’s primary. The Washington Post reports that the Republican Party is in chaos. The absence of historical precedent is also a source of fascination and surprise – it seems that no sitting Majority Leader has ever lost a primary.

But what does it all MEAN? The way we interpret elections pulls in more from the broader political context than from anything that goes on in the election itself. The title of this post comes from a letter written to the New York Times by a Prohibition activist after the 1932 election, insisting that the Democrats refrain from viewing their victory as a call to repeal Prohibition. The 18th amendment was repealed, of course, but that is not the dominant interpretation that most of us associate with the 1932 election. Nevertheless, the letter-writer saw the election result in those terms – a long-standing debate in national politics and within the Democratic Party.

Research on mandate politics also suggests that surprise is a crucial element for infusing an election with policy meaning. For the VA07 primary, two main interpretations seem to be emerging:

1. The contest between Brat and Cantor was all about immigration and thus has major implications for policy in the next Congress
2. The Tea Party/insurgent/anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party is alive and well and poses a substantial threat to party order.

Both of these interpretations have at least some basis in the facts. They’re also not mutually exclusive. But they point to different ways of placing last night’s result in a larger national party context – in itself, a significant interpretive leap. Sixty-five thousand people voted in the VA07 primary. My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that there are about 56 million Americans who self-identify as Republicans (to say nothing of everyone else). There are a couple ways we could see this – it’s possible that the primary voters in VA07 are pretty representative of the national party everywhere. It’s also possible that over-interpreting this race is woefully undemocratic, placing far too much control over the party and the even the direction of the country in the hands of a very small number of voters. Beyond this normative argument, however, all of the noise suggests that the qualitative, contextual stuff really does matter. The surprise nature of the victory. The demonstration that a high-level position in Congressional leadership isn’t enough to insulate a politician from a poorly-funded, obscure, and inexperienced challenger. And probably most importantly for the long-term, the victory will become a focal point for the debates and anxieties of the Republican Party.

The more “narrow” interpretation – that the contest was all about immigration – will likely keep immigration off the agenda (if it was ever going to be there), as other Congressional Republicans anticipate challenges from the right. This, of course, would be a major impact on policy and also says something about the importance of framing and symbolism in the Republican Party right now. Brat’s immigration line seems to have been one that has divided the party for years – amnesty.

But the second interpretation has even more sweeping implications. First, it offers a new understanding for what the Tea Party is. As several have observed, national Tea Party groups mostly ignored Brat’s candidacy, while local Tea Party groups supported him. The Tea Party has been difficult to pin down organizationally since its inception in 2009; this seems unlikely to change, but may shape how we think about the nature and power base of the movement. At fivethirtyeight, Harry Enten proposes that Cantor’s voting record is very conservative on the first DW-NOMINATE dimension, but also very “establishment,” if we were to characterize the sometimes-elusive second dimension that way. In other words, last night’s primary can be understood as evidence that the driving division in the Republican Party isn’t between conservatives and moderates, but between establishment and insurgent ideas about politics. I’m also reminded of a great line from PPIA: “It is not immediately clear what it means to win in an ideological conflict.” (pp. 25) If insurgency is actually a distinct ideology, it could have profound implications for how the Republican Party operates.

Note who is missing in all this discussion: the voters in the district. Interviews with people who actually cast a ballot yesterday seem to be absent from most national coverage of the race. This may or may not matter, depending on how you feel about plebiscitary, power-to-the-people notions of democracy. But this neglect should leave little doubt about what’s really happening when we interpret elections. It’s not about trying to figure out what happened and why, but about using a new development to understand familiar and persistent questions.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.