Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Economic Voting and Political Sophistication in the United States: A Reassessment

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Economic Voting and Political Sophistication in the United States: A Reassessment

Article excerpt

The authors propose a reexamination of the conditioning effect of political sophistication on economic voting in U.S. presidential elections. Replicating Gomez and Wilson's (2001) analysis with survey data from the past five American presidential elections (1988-2004), they show that low sophisticates strictly rely on sociotropic economic judgments in their intention to support the incumbent party's candidate. For their part, high sophisticates appear to use both sociotropic and pocketbook evaluations in their voting intention, but only in elections where the sitting incumbent is running for reelection (1992, 1996, and 2004). Most of these findings do not hold, however, once the postelectoral reported vote is used as the dependent variable. Indeed, the authors find that pocketbook evaluations do not have a significant impact on high sophisticates' reported vote choice, and they also find important variance in economic voting effects among low sophisticates. The results indicate that high sophisticates continue to use sociotropic evaluations in their voting decision, but only in incumbent elections. Overall, the analysis raises doubts about some of the previous studies' conclusions and underlines the importance of considering the moderating role of contextual factors such as incumbency and political campaigns in economic voting studies.

Keywords: economic voting; political sophistication; incumbency; electoral campaigns

Individual retrospective judgments about the economy influence individual vote choice in U.S. presidential elections. The conventional wisdom is that voters partially base their evaluations of incumbent governments on personal (the pocketbook hypothesis) and national economic conditions (the sociotropic hypothesis). Scholars also generally agree that sociotropic judgments constitute a better predictor of voting behavior than pocketbook evaluations. While this basic mechanism of electoral accountability for economic performance is now relatively well understood, we still do not know why some individuals rely on one kind of economic perceptions rather than another when casting their votes and what effect these behavioral differences may have on election outcomes.

Because a certain amount of information and cognitive skills is necessary for voters to form economic judgments and relate this information to electoral choices, political sophistication appears to be a promising avenue for examining individual heterogeneity in economic voting. Despite recent work on this topic, there does not seem to be a consensus over the exact relationship between political sophistication and economic voting. It seems intuitive to think that more knowledgeable citizens are more likely to recognize the implications of national economic policies on their own economic well-being and to "vote their pocketbook" accordingly (Sniderman, Brody, and Tetlock 1991; Gómez and Wilson 2001, 2003, 2006). But some argue instead that sociotropic economic voting increases as a function of sophistication while pocketbook voting behavior is restricted to the less knowledgeable segment of the electorate (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Goren 1997).

We believe that this current debate is misleading because nearly all the differences in results found in the existing studies are attributable to model misspecifications and to the limited number of elections considered in these analyses. In effect, the external validity of the current economic voting research on political sophistication is greatly limited since the typical analysis focuses only on one or two presidential elections. These micro-level studies also fail to account for some of the more recent macro-level findings that identify specific institutional processes which have an impact on the relationship between economic perceptions and incumbent support. And finally, none of the existing studies explicitly control for the moderating role that political campaigns may have on economic voting. …

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