Dead Ends and New Paths in the Study of Economic Voting
Summary and Keywords
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.
Keywords: economic voting, economic experiences, economic inequality, elections, individual heterogeneity, low-information voting, policy outputs, electoral accountability, retrospective voting, voter decision strategies
Connections between the economy and voting are commonly invoked as a tool for evaluating political accountability in democracies. Indeed, given the demands placed on citizens in complex modern societies, this accountability function—the agency of voters to punish elected representatives via the threat of sanction for underperformance—survives as a defining feature of representative democracy. Recently, however, researchers have cast doubt on the extent to which economic conditions influence voters’ evaluations of political incumbents and, by extension, on the extent to which elections can serve as mechanisms of political accountability.
Criticisms hail from a variety of directions. Some view inconsistencies in the economics-elections connection across national contexts as sufficiently great as to undermine claims that the economy registers a systematic effect. Other critiques originate with the individual voter, charging that the electorate lacks the knowledge necessary to link economic conditions to their decisions at the polls. Still others remind us not to mistake association for causation. The observed relationship, the argument goes, cannot be attributable to individuals’ first assessing a range of economic indicators and then supporting or rejecting politicians accordingly. Reversing the direction of causality, critics instead charge that individuals perceive the state of the economy through a series of lenses crafted by partisanship, life-work experiences, media consumption, and the like. All told, these reservations cast doubt on the presence of economic voting and its use as a gauge of electoral accountability and, by extension, of democratic performance.
The charges against the fidelity of economic voting are reviewed. Recent research findings are to be taken seriously. Many critics maintain that the economic vote is exaggerated at best or a chimera at worst, and pessimism pervades many current contributions to the field. Such critiques should push the field to reconceive of the economic vote. Rather than abandon the economic voting research program, researchers should revisit the measures, models, and untested assumptions that characterize the extant literature. Doing so should point to fruitful directions for future research based on a re-energized economic voting paradigm.
The default measures and models currently used for studying the economic vote are a source of much of the problem. Future work should move away from aggregate macroeconomic indices in favor of measuring economic signals in terms of those aspects of the economy as experienced by individuals. Furthermore, scholars need to reconsider the widely held assumption that economic conditions provide a universally optimal strategy of casting a ballot. Economic voting skeptics lament the weak or inconsistent impact of the economy on the vote. The implicit assumption being, of course, that economic voting is desirable. This desirability is not always the case, however; a growing body of work questions the desirability of the economic bases of voter choice. Finally, a case can be made for studies that examine the effects of economic voting on actual policy outcomes. Tests of the economy’s electoral consequences focus on understanding the factors that heighten, blunt, or otherwise “cause” the economic vote. But this may be missing the forest for the trees. One could forgive a scholar uninitiated to the field for asking if the economic vote, existent or not, actually mattered. Put differently, an oft-heard defense of the economics-elections research agenda is that robust economic voting brings about accountability. But the implication—that economic voting, through the policies of voter-dependent elites, positively influences subsequent performance—is rarely put to a test. New directions in the field should pursue the economic vote’s downstream effects on public policy and performance. Establishing a robust impact of economic voting would help justify the expectation of a strong economic vote and its study.
Each of these directions—some only proposed, others embarked upon—would advance understanding by embodying deeper, more nuanced conceptions of the economy, voters, and elected officials.
Economics and the Vote: Three Bases for Skepticism
This review is selective, and coverage necessarily leaves some areas untouched.1 Rather than a summary of a voluminous body of research, the principal lines of critique and their foundations for skepticism are identified.
Critique 1: Measuring the Mechanism
One would think that when dealing with something as straightforward as the economy and elections, measurement would not be a grave issue. After all, those concerned with how best to gauge human rights violations, political corruption, or trust in government (just to name a few) certainly face a far more difficult measurement task than do students of economic voting. Yet measurement concerns continue to riddle research in the field. How should the economic vote be measured? On the one hand, the answer appears simple: as a consideration confronting the voter, economic voting should be measured at the level of the individual. However, as Kramer (1983) argued some time ago, the instrument for doing so, the social survey, provides too crude an instrument for discerning how individual behavior is shaped by the economy.2 Systemic biases in media reporting add another hurdle to the public’s capacity to ascertain a common understanding of economic conditions (Anson, 2015; Nadeau, Niemi, Fan, & Amato, 1999; Sanders & Gavin, 2004). And while questions about one’s own financial standing are more accurate, they rarely separate out the government’s role from other factors.
Twenty years on, the field continues to grapple with Kramer’s conjecture (see, e.g., Lewis-Beck, Stubager, & Nadeau, 2013). Many have argued that what appears as reward-punishment economic voting is really a form of rationalizing by those with long-held political dispositions. Politics thus shapes economic assessments rather than vice-versa (Evans & Andersen, 2006; Wlezien, Franklin, & Twiggs, 1997). While the endogeneity problem can be circumvented by a research design that substitutes cross-sectional set-ups with longitudinal ones (Lewis-Beck, Nadeau, & Elias, 2008), many of the measurement problems pertaining to survey questions remain.
For these reasons, many opt for aggregated measures as unbiased means of gauging the economic vote. For example, in their study of economic voting in 15 European democracies, van der Brug, van der Eijk, and Franklin (2007) examine the effects of national macroeconomic conditions on individual voter preferences.3 Thus measured, they find that the “effects of economic conditions on individual voters are rather modest … significant though not especially powerful” (van der Brug et al., 2007, pp. 118, 137).4 The upshot is that the economic vote may not be as robust as previously thought. But this aggregation “fix” is no panacea. First and foremost, it removes us a step away from theory: the vote is an individual discrete choice and, as such, the economic vote is the relationship between an individual’s perception of the economy and her decision to cast a ballot for an available party or candidate. Second, even if we sacrifice theoretical purity for unbiased statistical estimates, it is not clear that a given macroeconomic indicator, be it growth, inflation, unemployment, or something else, sufficiently captures the voter’s perceptions of economic conditions. The point here is that concerns surrounding how to measure the economic vote, stretching back to Kramer’s insight, have fueled skepticism regarding the economic vote’s very existence.
Critique 2: Economic Voting as a Low-Information Strategy
An enduring attraction of retrospective economic voting is its capacity to offset the public’s general lack of knowledge about political affairs. As long as voters can assess changes in their welfare and sanction politicians accordingly, the argument goes, even a weakly informed set of citizen-principals can hold political agents to account and foster effective representative democracy. Fiorina succinctly captures this sentiment: “In order to ascertain whether the incumbents have performed poorly or well, citizens only need to calculate the changes in their own welfare” (1981, p. 5).
However, the assertion that economic voting is an effective low-information strategy has come under attack. Through analysis of a series of select cases, Achen and Bartels (2016) uncover a knowledge deficiency in voters’ capacity to attribute correctly outcomes to policymakers. Similarly, Healy, Malhotra, and Mo (2010) find that voters base their performance assessments of incumbents on factors as far removed from political responsibility as the performance of their preferred sports team. De Vries and Giger (2014) show that holding governments to account for past performance falls mainly on the shoulders of the highly sophisticated (cf. Gomez & Wilson, 2001, 2006). Fortunato and Stevenson (2013) report that those who are uninformed about the party composition of government cabinets engage in incorrect economic voting. Hellwig and Marinova (2015) have documented that American voters tend to be largely misinformed about the state of the national economy. The cumulative impact of studies approaching the question of knowledge and economic voting from different angles is to question assumptions about the use of economic voting as a low-information strategy of holding incumbents to account. And if the knowledge bar for economic voting is high, then this means that one of the great attractions of the theory of economic voting—that anyone can cast an economic vote—is seriously undermined.
Critique 3: Instability across Contexts
A third source of pessimism pertains to the strength of economic voting in comparative perspective. In a seminal study, Paldam (1991) pointed to wide variation in the rates of economic voting across national samples. This “instability dilemma” was subsequently addressed by Powell and Whitten (1993), who proposed a set of institutional and governmental factors that diffuse responsibility as a means to account for why economic voting was stronger in some nations and weaker in others. Powell and Whitten’s insights about the role of the “clarity of responsibility” has been extended to incorporate a large array of national-level and temporal-level factors shown to condition the economic vote (e.g., Anderson, 2000, 2006; Bengtsson, 2004; Carlin & Singh, 2015; Gélineau & Singer, 2015; Hellwig & Samuels, 2008; Hobolt, Tilly, & Banducci, 2013; Nadeau, Niemi, & Yoshinaka, 2002).
The very proliferation of these contingencies has led some to question whether economic voting is the rule or only a rare exception. As Anderson (2007, p. 272) aptly notes, “too much of the impact of the economy on government support or election outcomes is too contingent to justify the appeal of economic voting research on normative or empirical grounds.” Anderson further observes that most contributions to the cross-national economic voting research program assume that voters would, if only they could, cast an economic vote: it is just that the political context (variously defined by different researchers) often stands in the way of them doing so (2007, p. 282). Kayser (2014) shares much of this skepticism. He performs a cross-national analysis and in all but a few established democracies finds that the relationship between economics and elections fails to live up to the reward-punishment expectations undergirding the economic vote.
These three sets of critiques target issues at the heart of economic voting research. They upset the underlying assumptions on which the literature was founded; namely, that the economy can be easily measured; that voters need little information to gauge economic performance; and that electoral accountability, through economic voting, should function across democratic contexts.
Revisiting Measures, Models, and the Individual-Level Basis of the Vote
The charges previously enumerated may leave one with a sense that the economic voting research agenda has reached a point of exhaustion. Debates about concept measurement, voter knowledge, and the importance and identity of conditioning factors have been extant since at least the turn of the 21st century. Yet, the skeptic might assert, we are little closer to answering fundamental questions about whether the economy “matters.” But not all is doom and gloom. Critical takes challenge the measures, models, and assumptions characterizing the field at present and, in doing so, open gates to promising new paths of research.
Measuring Economic Performance
Some years ago, two important (and similarly named) books were published on economic voting in advanced capitalist democracies: The Economy and the Vote by van der Brug, van der Eijk, and Franklin (2007), and The Economic Vote by Duch and Stevenson (2008). The former argued in favor of the use of macroeconomic measures (e.g., economic growth, the rate of national unemployment) on the grounds that these indicators are exogenously determined from voter choice. By modeling the microeconomic vote as a function of macro-indicators, van der Brug et al. assumed the existence of a single, real economy that is experienced uniformly across individuals (see also Nadeau, Lewis-Beck, & Bélanger, 2013). Duch and Stevenson (2008) instead employed measures of individual-level economic evaluations to gauge economic voting. The economic vote, they reasoned, is an individual-level phenomenon and should be assessed accordingly. Others deem subjective assessments to be preferable to a series of objective measures, none of which may be sufficiently “global” in scope to characterize public opinion (Bellucci & Lewis-Beck, 2011; Nadeau & Lewis-Beck, 2001). Other studies go as far as to deny the existence of a “real” economy and hold that economic performance is not observed uniformly but uniquely across individuals (Stevenson & Duch, 2013).
While the critiques of subjective assessments are now well known, the charge against the use of ostensibly objective-based measures is less familiar and deserving of discussion. With regard to the measurement of the “real economy,” Stevenson and Duch (2013, p. 308) levy a charge against such indicators currently popular to capture macroeconomic performance:
Such statistics do not provide a complete picture of the economy, are noisy measures built from samples, often rely on reported economic activity rather than actual activity, are often contradictory, are politically contested, and are not even particularly accurate at the time of their initial release (as judged by the size and the frequency of later revisions).
To illustrate this point, the authors summon official estimates of the national unemployment rate in the United States in July 2009. Depending on how the civilian labor force is defined, the national unemployment rate can range hugely, from 5.1 to 16.3%, and this variation is reflected in the reporting of economic performance in the media. The technical and (most likely) political contestation surrounding the measurement of economic performance implies that the “real economy,” if we accept that it exists, is only imperfectly reflected in the macroeconomic indicators used throughout the economic voting literature. Indeed, Kayser and Leininger (2015) show that the initial economic estimates reported in the media provide better election forecasts than the more accurate but repeatedly revised economic data relied upon by nearly all studies employing objective measures of economic conditions.
Economic Experiences and the Economic Vote
A second and related critique of the macroeconomic approach to economic voting is that while the overall economic activity at the national level (e.g., the GDP growth rate) can be measured, the benefits of economic well-being—and the losses of economic slowdowns—are not necessarily distributed evenly across all segments of the population. Or, as Harold Wilson pithily noted, “one man’s wage increase is another man’s price increase.” Some examples are in order. First, take the decline in unemployment in the United States between 2010 and 2011. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 90% of the jobs created had gone to men. Further, the decline in unemployment was accompanied by cuts in the public sector, which employs disproportionately women and African Americans. Faced with these statistics, Strolovitch (2013, p. 167) maintains that “women and people of color fared worse after the economic crisis of the Great Recession had ‘officially’ ended.” Even when macroeconomic indicators, such as the rate of national unemployment, suggest solid performance, a non-negligible segment of the population may objectively be faring worse.
Another example is the distribution of the benefits accrued by economic growth to different strata of society over the past four decades. In the United States, productivity growth has steadily increased since the 1970s. But aggregate income gains are not reflected in the majority of workers’ compensation. While the income growth of the top 1% mirrors closely the rate of growth between 1967 and 2011, the income of the middle 60% of the U.S. population has stayed flat or declined over the same period (Baker, 2007; Howell, 2013; Mishel, Bivens, Gould, & Shierholz, 2012; Mishel & Gee, 2012). These inter-class comparisons are consistent with evidence showing a steady increase since 1970s in the share of total income accruing to the upper income groups (Piketty, 2014).5 While productivity levels have taken off, worker compensation has stalled. The result has been that the incomes for the majority of citizens have become delinked from economic growth rates. All told, measures of macroeconomic performance may well reflect changes in the economic well-being of a segment of the population but can only serve as poor measures of the underlying concept of universal economic well-being.
The broadening income gaps in advanced industrial societies today only underline the need to study the diversity of economic experiences. Yet the implications of intra-societal diversity with respect to income and poverty for how economic conditions inform the vote have received scant attention. A handful of studies test for variation in the strength of economic voting based on voter demographics. Mughan and Lacy’s (2002) examination of the 1996 U.S. presidential election is one example. They first demonstrate that standard macroeconomic indicators had little predictive power on the vote for a large segment of the electorate—one that experienced job insecurity. Countering claims that third-party candidates do not benefit from a poor economy, the study proceeds to show that expectations about future jobs exert a substantial influence both on turnout and on the vote. Mughan and Lacy conclude, “failure to take account of the economy’s multi-faceted character can lead to mis-specified models of economic voting” (p. 514).
One way of accounting for the economy’s multifaceted character is demonstrated by a recent but rapidly growing body of work on “patrimonial” economic voting. These studies posit that to conceive of economic performance in terms of change in aggregate or personal circumstances is to underestimate the full effect of the economy on elections. Another path through which the economy matters is through ownership (Nadeau, Foucault, & Lewis-Beck, 2010; Lewis-Beck, Nadeau, & Foucault, 2013). Another is voters’ objective labor situation as basis for channeling economic information into political support. Drawing on scholarship in political economy (Emmenegger et al., 2012; Rueda, 2007), Marx (2016) shows that the segmentation of the labor market and one’s status as an insider or outsider has repercussions for the strength of the economic vote. Workers in insecure employment appear more likely to regard their personal financial situation poorly and to sanction incumbents for it at the polls. Similarly, economic voting is stronger among voters who are in more insecure employment situations (Fossati, 2014; Singer, 2013, 2016). And Alt and Lassen (2013) show that individual unemployment history and the unemployment history of one’s neighbors strongly predict risk perceptions and voting behavior. Aggregate economic indicators, however, exert no effect on individual perceptions of risk or on the vote. Starting by recognizing that objective economic conditions vary systematically and predictably across individuals, these studies emphasize how such variation provides a stronger predictor of the vote than does the macroeconomy in general.6
These appear to be promising directions. Voting is an act carried out by individuals. The factors shaping voter choice, therefore, vary from person to person. And this means that individual experiences, rather than some macro aggregation, lie at the heart of the voter’s calculus. And this is arguably even more the case as economic inequalities grow within Western democracies. Future research on voter choice should account for the material well-being of different and meaningful segments of society, and do so in terms of objective measures. Hence, rather than model the vote across individuals as a function of macroeconomic indicators at the national level or rely on subjective evaluations of the national economy, research should work toward identifying the objective economic indicators most relevant to different subgroups of voters.
Doing so would allow for better specified models of economic voting where the varied economic experiences of socioeconomic subgroups are correctly reflected in the measurement of economic performance. Advancing research in this direction could reinvigorate lines of study and provide an opening for considering how the intersectionality of gender, class, and ethnicity bear on economic- and performance-based voting in general. Adopting this more fine-grained approach has implications for a rarely questioned wisdom in the field—namely, that weak or inconsistent rates of economic voting are due to voters’ lack of knowledge about the national economy. Rather than assume that there is a single, real economy, the performance on which every voter should base her decision, we should allow for the possibility that multiple, parallel “economies” are experienced by different subgroups of voters. The implication is that voters—and particularly women and minorities—are not necessarily misinformed when they evaluate the national economy7 but that our measures and models do not adequately reflect the variety of experiences with the economy across society.
This approach also invites a re-consideration of received wisdoms in the study of cross-national economic voting. Powell and Whitten’s (1993) insights about the role of the institutional clarity of responsibility opened the floodgates to a vibrant research program aimed at capturing cross-national heterogeneity. This research program, however, has increasingly been the target of critique. A focus on the economic indicators of groups within national societies offers another challenge to cross-national scholarship, but it may also open new lines of research on the interaction of institutions and voting behavior. The future of cross-national analyses should center on identifying the meaningful socioeconomic subgroups and the economic indicators that reflect their experience of the economy. These groups likely vary from one country to the next, based on how politics and economics are organized. For example, the demographic groups with a disproportionately high risk of unemployment and underemployment vary across advanced industrialized democracies (Schwander & Häusermann, 2013). These might be the low-skilled in liberal political economies, the young in Mediterranean Europe, women in continental and Nordic regimes, and so on.8 Meeting these modeling challenges will require analysts to think anew about the interactions between institutions, economic structures, inequality, social diversity, and party choice.
Broadening the Field
Further refinements to how voters understand the economy or to how contexts shape the economy’s impact on elections remain valid pursuits. Yet larger and more fundamental gains may be had, perhaps, by turning attention to testing—and, if warranted, defending—the benefits of robust economic voting. From its origins as an empirical investigation, the boundaries of the economic voting agenda have been marked by the question: “Does the economy matter?” The amount of intellectual dynamism in the field moving forward will hinge on our capacity to ask new questions. Two of these are “Should the economy matter?” and “Does economic voting matter?”
Should the Economy Matter?
Should the economy matter for the vote? The assumption is that it should. Too often, however, students of economic voting focus on understanding contextual variations in economic retrospective voting at the detriment of examining why and what aspects of the economy matter, and for whom. To take but one example, consider one of the more successful lines of scholarship in the field since the mid-1990s: the clarity of responsibility thesis. Clarity of responsibility accounts have been employed to explain variation in the strength of electoral accountability across time and space. The attention devoted to these applications, however, comes with drawbacks. As Anderson (2007, p. 282) argues, the near-exclusive focus on the role of electoral institutions, political conditions, and similar contexts confounds the assignment of responsibility for economic performance with electoral accountability itself. In its unbending preoccupation with identifying the conditions that foster economic voting, this scholarship has uncritically upheld the economic vote as a viable decision-making rule across elections. Arguably the sheer amount of research conducted on the contingencies of retrospective economic voting validates it as a viable decision-making rule. But extant scholarship has not paid sufficient attention to when or why economic voting is a viable strategy of electing competent politicians.
One retort against the desirability of an economic vote stems from studies that examine which economic information voters rely upon when evaluating elected officials. It has long been posited that retrospective voting—economic or otherwise—is myopic. Voters tend to focus on very recent economic performance rather than consider performance over the entirety of the government’s time in office (e.g., Achen & Bartels, 2016; Bartels, 2008; Healy & Lenz, 2014; Healy & Malhotra, 2009; Huber, Hill, & Lenz, 2012; cf. Hellwig & Marinova, 2015; Peltzman, 1990). But if assessments of the government’s record in office rest only on the very recent past, then any variation in the level of recent performance (e.g., year four of a U.S. presidential administration) from those earlier in the executive’s term (years 1–3) will produce biased assessments. So one implication of this myopia is that economic voting becomes a suboptimal strategy and voters should decide based on other, less-biased signals.9
Setting course on a more promising path with respect to the prospects for political accountability, other researchers downplay the need for voters to be informed in order to engage in retrospective voting. One line of argument is that information is not needed to act in one’s self-interest because voters can effectively use cues to substitute for information about policies (e.g., Lupia & McCubbins, 1998). Another is that a preoccupation with voter rationality misses the larger point that changes in voting behavior produce changes in the behavior of politicians seeking a balance between implementing policies close to their ideal points and those preferred by the majority of the electorate. As Ashworth and Bueno de Mesquita (2014, p. 567) assert, “any particular collection of empirical facts about voter characteristics—be it evidence of voter incompetence or voter competence—has, on its own, no particular implication for democratic performance.”
Even if we accept that retrospective voting provides the electorate with a modicum of control over elected officials (Key, 1966; Fiorina, 1981), selecting representatives based on economic conditions alone may still at times yield suboptimal outcomes. Two scenarios where this applies are highlighted. The first pertains to instances where the government in question makes decisive policy reforms in key areas in an attempt to right the ship of state. These “policy switches” may arise in response to changing conditions, voter disillusion, or both. A well-known case of the former is French President François Mitterrand’s “U-turn” in 1983. Elected on a solidly socialist platform, Mitterrand quickly adopted a series of left-of-center reforms. However, less than two years later he did an about-face and shifted his economic policies in a more neoliberal direction, chiefly due to the need to align policy with France’s trading partners in the European Community. Another prominent example is Peru in the 1990s when President Alberto Fujimori engineered fundamental shifts in policy, away from his electoral promises and in a neoliberal direction (Stokes, 2001).10 Controversy surrounding the breaches in electoral promises notwithstanding, it must be asked whether or not it is rational for voters to evaluate these policymakers based solely on the success of their economic programs. In cases where policy is not stable but is characterized by abrupt and unanticipated shifts, rational voters should arguably evaluate politicians based less on their economic management competence (e.g., Alesina & Rosenthal, 1995) and more on their penchant to deliver on campaign promises. Indeed, studies have shown that shifts in policy orientation by candidates (Hart, 2013) or governments (Hellwig, 2012) can mitigate the economic vote. What is known about how the economy matters must be re-evaluated alongside how parties’ non-economic, non-valence appeals interact with economic signals to shape party choice (see, e.g., Williams & Whitten, 2015).
A second scenario where retrospective voting is not a viable decision-making strategy pertains not to mid-term policy switches but to mid-term changes in the political incumbent. Questioning the universal logic of economic voting, Marinova (2016) argues that the organizational transformation of incumbent parties between elections should discourage reasoned voters from relying on past economic performance in their voting calculus. Per the rational selection or competency model (Alesina & Rosenthal, 1995), voters are expected to use past economic performance to select competent policymakers. But assessment of the incumbent’s economic performance is only one of several considerations voters will rely on, and an alternative set of considerations may at times supersede retrospective ones in determining competency. One set of considerations is related to changes in party organizations that introduce uncertainty about parties’ subsequent performance. A split within one party, a merger with another, or simply a change of leadership prior to the election should alter the competences of incumbents, be it for better or for worse. As a result, the voter may have good reasons to doubt that her prior information on the incumbent’s economic record would continue to serve as a good predictor of that person’s “post-transformation” performance. A reasoned voter is less likely to use economic performance as the sole criterion of parties’ governing competence. Consequently, retrospective voting is less justifiable as a decision-making tool when party alternatives undergo transformations than in elections with long-standing, stable parties.
These recent takes on economic voting stand in sharp contrast to cross-national studies which assume that when voters do not cast an economic vote, it is because they are not able to do so. We suggest that the disregarding of economic information by voters may be fully intentional, regardless of issues of attribution of responsibility. This perspective should invite scholars to reconsider the desirability of economic voting. After all, economic performance always provides only partial information on incumbents’ competency. Corruption scandals or mismanagement in other policy areas may well supersede an overall positive economic assessment of the incumbent’s performance in office (Carlin, Love, & Martínez-Gallardo, 2015; Zechmeister & Zizumbo-Colunga, 2013). We can take variation in the salience of economic performance across elections as evidence of this, and this variation is reflected in the strength of the economic vote (Singer, 2011). Clearly, non-economic policy concerns have the potential to supersede economic performance in importance and serve as bases for sanctioning incumbents (e.g., Armingeon & Giger, 2008; Fournier, Blais, Nadeau, Gidengil, & Nevitte, 2003; Giger, 2010; Hellwig, 2015; de Vries, van der Brug, van Egmond, & van der Eijk, 2011). Future research should aim at a better understanding of the conditions that trigger voters to neglect, or at least give secondary importance to, the economy.
Does Economic Voting Matter?
The other question deserving attention is whether economic voting, in fact, matters. As Riker (1982, p. 9) reasoned some time ago, the accountability component of elections provides a mechanism for ensuring that elected officials will “refrain from deploying the force of government against citizens to make them support unpopular policies that officials believe necessary.” Extending such reasoning, electoral accountability ostensibly provides a mechanism for ensuring responsive policymaking down the road. If an incumbent is re-elected on the basis of a sound economy or ousted following a poor one, does it leave an impact on how politicians govern? Is there a relationship between electoral accountability and policy outputs? Despite the importance of these questions for the broader performance of representative democracy, there has been surprisingly little empirical work devoted to addressing them. In a 2013 review essay, Healy and Malhotra singled out a need to study the impact of economic voting on policy outputs. Identifying the link connecting retrospective voting to policy outcomes “is empirically difficult but also crucially important if we are to interpret retrospective voting as a normatively appealing phenomenon” (Healy & Malhotra, 2013, p. 299).
Only a handful of studies examine directly the link between electoral accountability and subsequent policy performance, and those that do tend to focus on the gains to incumbents from fiscal outcomes like election-year spending or disaster relief responses rather than election gains accrued from overseeing a strong economy. Findings produced by these studies furthermore have been inconsistent and difficult to reconcile. While some scholars have found evidence of a positive link between elections and the economy, others have failed to confirm these findings. Kiewiet (2000) finds that the institutional features that bring about strong electoral accountability discourage politicians from over-regulating the business environment and from engaging in transfers and subsidies; this in turn contributes to economic growth. In examining the relationship between electoral accountability and political corruption, Tavits (2007) shows that institutional features that bring about strong accountability also create fewer incentives for politicians to pursue rent-seeking policies, resulting in lower levels of corruption. In contrast, Sattler, Freeman, and Brandt (2008) demonstrate that popular influence over economic policy is ineffectual in reducing inflation or in promoting economic growth. In contrast to Tavits (2007), Kiewiet (2000) uncovers no evidence of differences in levels of bribery and corruption between high- and low-accountability electoral systems. And Crisp, Olivella, Potter, and Mishler (2014) fail to uncover evidence of voter defection reducing political corruption. While perceived corruption leads voters to defect, a finding implying a functioning sanctioning mechanism, defection does reduce subsequent corruption levels.
Slight coverage paired with inconsistent findings means that a number of questions remain open with regard to the link between economic voting, on one hand, and economic policy and performance, on the other. Most important, little is known about the tangible political incentives electoral accountability creates for elites. For example, though a substantial body of research in political economy examines the role of elections in the management of the economy and of political-economic cycles as determinants of macroeconomic policy (e.g., Nordhaus, 1975; Alt & Lassen, 2006; Canes-Wrone & Park, 2012), few studies have considered the role of electoral accountability on macroeconomic policy. How does electoral accountability factor in policymakers’ calculus? And how do politicians balance the incentives created by accountability against other policymaking goals and electoral promises? Furthermore, it remains unclear how electoral incentives relate to policymakers’ competing incentives structures. Are the incentives equally strong across the electoral cycle, or are they concentrated in the months or year prior to an election?
While not tied explicitly to reward-punishment models of economic voting, a cognate body of literature documents a palpable effect of electoral incentives more generally on policy-making in a number of arenas. Hübscher and Sattler (2015) examine the effect of electoral competitiveness on fiscal consolidation. The authors argue that government efforts to take on costly fiscal reforms is a function both of their place in the electoral cycle (earlier is deemed less costly than later, given myopic voters) and of the size of their margin of victory (governments with large margins can afford to absorb costly reforms) (cf. Kayser & Lindstädt, 2015). Immergut and Abou-Chadi (2014) emphasize the role of electoral vulnerability in contributing to the undertaking of policy reforms.11 And Abou-Chadi and Orlowski (2016) demonstrate that the level of electoral competitiveness contributes to parties’ future policy positions: in competitive electoral environments, mainstream parties choose to moderate their appeals and niche parties move to the extremes, both with the goal of maximizing vote share. A number of other studies suggest that incentives to shape welfare policy vary across party families, with socialist and social-democratic parties systematically losing votes after cutting welfare benefits while liberal and conservative parties are not necessarily punished for the same type of cuts (Giger & Nelson, 2011; Schumacher, Vis, & van Kersbergen, 2013). While occupied with different outcomes—be they policy or positions—these studies share a concern for understanding the “other side” of economic voting—that is, the supply-side implications. In a similar fashion, the field should turn its attention to the policy incentives generated by economic voting as they would help pinpoint the linkages between elections and policy outputs.
Conclusion: From Skepticism to Pathways Forward
The study of economic voting arose out of the intuitive expectation that economic performance should have palpable consequences on the vote. From this starting point, the field has evolved into one of the most successful research programs in political science, held up by many as a gauge for understanding whether democracy works. Recent research, however, has not been kind to the economic vote. Many of the assumptions originally taken for granted have been questioned. Namely, how do we best measure the economy? How much information is required for voters to judge economic performance? Should we expect voters to apply economic retrospective reasoning across elections? These questions and the debates they have spurred should be viewed as positive developments. Far from being stalled, the field is evolving and reflecting on its progress. As evidence of its continual self-reflection, core assumptions have been questioned and findings reassessed. Our understanding of voting behavior would benefit from further scrutiny of the received assumptions.
The focus has been on three critiques deemed prevalent and important. They are prevalent not only because they have been brought up in a series of studies but also because they intersect with some of the key debates in the literature. They are important because they eat at the core assumptions in the economic voting literature, as originally conceived, and thus present a formidable challenge to the development of the field. These critiques offer a unique opportunity to revisit the building blocks of the economic vote and to rethink assumptions. Doing so would bring a better understanding of the economy-vote nexus and a re-energized field of study.
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(1.) It is difficult for one review to cover the breadth of economic voting scholarship. Writing in 2000, Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier (2000, p. 183) estimated that there existed “a torrent of over 300 articles and books on economics and elections.” That number is surely greater now. (For recent reviews, see Anson & Hellwig, 2015; Healy & Malhotra, 2013; Kayser, 2014; Lewis-Beck & Stegmaier, 2013.)
(2.) Anyone who has worked with socio-tropic perceptions items on surveys knows these questions are measured with error, as testified by the broad disagreement on the state of the economy across respondents.
(8.) Therefore, being a woman in Germany would mean different kinds of labor risks from being a woman in Britain.
(9.) Following Healy and Lenz (2014), we could also conclude that retrospective voting would be unbiased if voters had access to information about performance outcomes over the whole of the incumbent’s term.