The Surprising Complexity of Economic Voting

When I began to research the relationship between the economy and elections, I initially conceptualized economic voting as a simple sanction/reward process. During periods of prosperity, the party in power would likely accrue benefits from the perception of strong economic performance. The opposite outcome would be expected when the economy was in a period of decline.  Instead, I found that the political science literature is deeply divided over the sanction/reward model and its proximate causal mechanism.  Within the economic voting rubric are two explanations: sociotropic voting (when a voter casts a ballot based on state or national economic conditions)  and egocentric voting (a voter determined by an individual’s personal economic standing). The traditional press’s focus on gas prices and political behavior fits the egocentric model. When a voter who is employed blames an incumbent for unemployment, he or she is exercising a sociotropic judgment. These two models have been dissected for decades, as political scientists have jousted over why changes in personal economic status often do not translate into votes against incumbents. At stake is one of the most significant rationales for democratic government: retrospective evaluation. If voters do not sanction politicians for poor economic management, the accountability mechanism of democracy breaks down.

Scholars have posited that a “rational retrospective voter” discerns between economic outcomes that are negative affected by exogenous shocks versus those caused by poor economic management. The rational retrospective voter model is ideal for describing voter behavior in a vacuum, but it loses explanatory value when applied to presidential and congressional elections, which are heavily influenced by partisan voting. In the 2010 midterm election, no Democratic incumbents were defeated in districts above D+7 PVI (seven points more Democratic than the national average) and the majority of Republican pick-up victories came in Democratic-held seats that were more Republican than the national average. I also conducted a regression analysis that found that a Democratic incumbent’s vote on health care reform held more predictive value for vote swing toward Republicans than did growth in foreclosure rates and unemployment rates between 2009 and 2010. Another factor that complicates economic voting is clarity of responsibility for policy-making. Typically, the President and the Congress compete for public credit or blame for policy results. With each chamber of Congress controlled by a different party, Congress cannot present a cohesive voice in policy debates. As such, the President can deploy blame assignment onto the Congressional body controlled by the opposing party. This enables the President to elevate another political actor (the opposing party’s leader or leaders in a Congressional chamber) as a source of blame for a poor economic outcome.

Through the course of this research, I have gained a greater appreciation for the nuanced and often conflicting studies on economic voting. While we know that the economy is the driving force behind electoral politics, we have much to learn about the connections between economics and voting.

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