Timothy Hellwig and Dani M. Marinova
Connections between the economy and vote are commonly invoked to evaluate political accountability in representative democracies. A principal motivation for studying economic voting lies in its value as a gauge of whether democracy works or not. In recent years, however, researchers have cast doubt on the assertion that economic conditions influence voters’ evaluations of political incumbents.
Criticisms hail from several directions. Some, adopting a cross-national perspective, cite the instability problem as evidence against economic voting’s existence. That is, variance in the economy-vote relationship across different national contexts is sufficiently large so as to undermine claims that the economy registers a systematic effect. Other critics charge that the electorate lacks sufficient knowledge to incorporate economic conditions in their decisions at the polls. Still others remind us not to mistake correlation for causation. They charge that the voters’ perceptions of how well the economy is performing are viewed through a pre-existing partisan lens. All told, these and other reservations cast doubt on the use of economic voting as a means to evaluate accountability and, in turn, democratic performance.
These charges against the fidelity of economic voting require further examination. Rather than join a growing chorus of observers concluding that the economic vote is a chimera, this piece posits that recent critiques should push us to reconceive rather than discredit economic voting. Recent work in psychology and behavioral economics provides a basis for constructive and meaningful reinterpretations of the economy’s influence on voter decisions. These new directions include an emphasis on framing effects—be it on the part of strategic elites or from the media, an emphasis on what voters know about the economy, and a wider consideration of just which “economy” matters to which set of voters. While many in number, each of these new directions advance understanding by embodying deeper conceptions of voters and elected officials.