Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Election Cycles and the Economic Voter

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Election Cycles and the Economic Voter

Article excerpt

Many studies have sought to clarify how voters' opinions of the economy predict evaluations of leaders and parties. Following Kramer's (1983) work on the problems of studying individual-level data, many authors have employed aggregate data in dynamic analyses to estimate rival models and choose favored variables. A restriction with such analyses is that they are unable to look closely at different periods within the overall study and thus may miss the importance of contextual factors. Our study complements existing aggregate-level inferences by analyzing repeated cross-sections of opinion polls in Britain over several years. We estimate the effects of subjective economic variables on vote intention in monthly public opinion surveys and examine how the parameters vary across individuals and over time. We suggest that the choices of whether voters are forwardlooking, backward-looking, egocentric or sociotropic are overly restrictive. We find that the sociotropic dimension dominates the egocentric dimension in evaluations of the government and that the relative importance of prospective and retrospective evaluations vary in predictable patterns over the election cycle.

It is an almost indisputable empirical reality that economic factors influence the popularity of a government and its electoral fortunes. Which aspects of the economy and how they are best measured tends to vary across time and space. In the UK, subjective evaluations of the economy have been found to be important for explaining support for governing parties (Sanders 1993; Clarke and Stewart 1995), although there is no consensus which subjective measure is the most appropriate.

Distinct from previous research we do not argue that one measure best explains the movement of support for the government. We expect that different types of economic evaluation will be effective at different times in the electoral cycle. For example, a model that relies upon prospective or retrospective evaluations over time will be unable completely to account for economic evaluations of the government both before and after a change in governing party at an election.

Political scientists seeking evidence of the ties between evaluations of the economy and support for the government have long argued the relative merits of using aggregate-level or individual-level data. Kramer (1983) claims that the errors of inference created by aggregation-commonly referred to as errors of ecological inference-are frequently outweighed by errors of measurement, response biases and other problems inherent in individual-level data. Following this advice, many studies of the effects of perceptions of the economy on government popularity and vote choice are set up in the form of time-serial popularity functions. In such studies, the opinions of many individuals from a single survey are aggregated into data points on a monthly or quarterly basis to develop time series variables of party approval, vote intention, leadership approval, economic evaluations and so forth. Time series analysis techniques are then used to compare the value of several aggregate economic variables as predictors of support for the government. Through this process a great deal has been learned of the effects that subjective economic evaluations have on the electorates opinions of parties and leaders and on the central question of vote choice.

Nevertheless, we find limitations with this line of research and address them in this article. Principally, inferences that rely on time series regressions do not account for the possibility that the effects of an independent variable may vary over the course of the series. Existing time series models tell us how economic perceptions affect governing party approval over time but do not demonstrate how that effect may be different in the months leading up to and directly following an election. Voters' knowledge about the timing of elections and their opinions about the likely outcomes of elections are additional factors that play a role in the calculus of vote intentions and approval. …

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