Voters don’t award points for effort

at 11:20 AM ET, 09/14/2011

After yesterday’s discussion about the role that policy plays in securing or undermining a party’s election chances, Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels e-mailed a paper (pdf) he had written testing this very question against a data set of 31 parliamentary elections conducted in developed countries between 2007 and 2011. His results will not be encouraging for politicians who hope doing a good job will be enough for them to keep their jobs.


(DARREN HAUCK)
To try to separate whether abnormally good policies led to abnormally good results, Bartels constructed a model that tried to predict election outcomes based on relative growth rates -- that is to say, the country’s growth rate subtracted from the average growth rate of developed nations. “This would be a more appropriate measure of economic conditions if voters in each country were comparing their own economy’s performance against that of other OECD economies—in effect, making rough allowance for the impact of global economic forces on national performance,” he writes.

He then tested the model against a more traditional measure that predicted elections based on a country’s growth rates without adjusting for global growth rates. The adjusted model failed the test. Then he tried to construct a model that used both the adjusted and unadjusted growth rate to predict election. That also underperformed the traditional model. In other words, there is no evidence that voters are at all interested in whether their economies are performing better relative to other economies in other countries. The only thing that interests them is the absolute performance of their economy. And as you can see in this graph, that interests them rather a lot:

Bartels’ paper looked at a number of other variables, too. He found little evidence, for instance, that voters responded to the economic crisis in an ideological way. If anything, an international perspective suggested more right wing parties benefited from the collapse, though that was likely because more left wing parties were in power prior to the crisis. 

At the time, these election results surprised observers like ‘The Economist’ magazine, which wondered how left-wing parties could have “failed to capitalise on an economic crisis tailor-made for critics of the free market.” But as Bartels argues, that puzzlement only makes sense if “one supposes that voters are animated by the same ideological understandings that are commonplace among political elites, including most journalists, political scientists, and activists. However, if average voters are mostly inattentive to the manifestos of ‘critics of the free market’ and skeptical of assertions about which parties ‘historically have delivered for them,’ it may not be so surprising to find them behaving in ways that confound conventional ideological expectations.”

Bartels also looked to see whether fiscal stimulus hurt or helped a party’s chance of getting reelected. He found some evidence that it helped, though the numbers aren’t as strong as stimulus supporters might hope:

None of this proves that policy doesn’t matter. It simply suggests that voters make decisions based on a fairly crude analysis of the economy rather than a fine-grained study of policymakers. That incumbent parties do better when the economy does better suggests that politicians should take economic policy very seriously. But the fact that voters don’t much care whether their policymakers appear to be performing relatively better than other policymakers shows that even very effective public servants are vulnerable in periods when economic events overwhelm economic policy.

 
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