Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Winning with a Bad Economy

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Winning with a Bad Economy

Article excerpt

The outcome of the 2012 presidential election was a letdown not just for Mitt Romney, FOX News, and numerous election forecasters, but also for proponents of economic voting. Incumbents are supposed to lose, not win reelection when economic times are bad. The country had suffered the worst recession since the Great Depression, recovery was tepid, unemployment stubbornly high, and the federal budget mired in trillion-dollar deficits. The general public was in a sour mood about the economic situation. Indeed, forecast models that relied heavily on economic variables predicted the incumbent president's defeat. So how did Barack Obama escape that fate?

Without denying the contributions of other factors, such as foreign policy, the personal qualities of the candidates, as well as the campaign, we propose an answer that keys on a critical condition of economic voting: the attribution of responsibility. This is not an unfamiliar concept in the study of the economic vote (for the latest overview, see Stegmaier and Lewis-Beck 2013). The standard assumption is that the incumbent party/president bears the responsibility for the current state of the economy. But this may not hold when the current state is, to a considerable extent, the legacy of the previous administration. Was Obama in 2012 seen as the major culprit for the bad economy? Or was it the Bush administration, under which the economic meltdown began? Bad economic times notwithstanding, the U.S. economy did show signs of recovery during Obama's first term. So voters would be able to credit the president with improving those conditions. Did Obama gain more from voters with a favorable view of the economy than he lost among those with an unfavorable view?

Using the American National Election Studies (ANES) (1) Winter 2012 survey ("Evaluations of Government and Society Survey"), we have examined these questions, taking special care to control for the effects of partisanship as well as other confounds. Our main conclusion is that the American public was reluctant to blame Obama for the bad economy, being far more inclined to blame his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. It was almost as if Obama was running against Bush, not Romney in 2012. By saddling Bush with heavy responsibility for bad economic times voters largely shielded Obama from electoral damage. Obama was also credited for whatever recovery voters saw during bad times: voters were far more inclined to rely on positive views of the economy than on negative ones. While this type of asymmetric voting runs contrary to the more common type, where negative views carry more weight, it is consistent with the relative lack of blame placed on Obama for the bad economy. In addition, we probed the hypothesis that voters may operate in a prospective manner, as "bankers" rather than "peasants," to use a familiar pair of metaphors. It may not have mattered to voters that economic conditions were poor; what mattered was what economic conditions would be in the future. While there is some support for prospective voting, this type of orientation did not trump retrospective voting in 2012; nor did a majority see the economic future in rosy colors. In the end, it was the combination of blame and credit for economic conditions that helped Obama win with a bad economy.

Economic Voting

The standard model of economic voting treats the electorate, in V. O. Key's memorable phrase, as a "rational god of vengeance and reward" (1964, 568). On Election Day voters reward incumbents for good economic conditions and punish them for bad ones (For the latest overview of economic voting studies, see Stegmaier and Lewis-Beck 2013; see also Duch 2007; Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2000; Norpoth 1996a). Candidates have proved quite adept at prompting voters to employ this calculus. Many may remember the notorious question Ronald Reagan used during the 1980 campaign, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago? …

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