Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Bringing the President Back In: The Collapse of Lehman Brothers and the Evolution of Retrospective Voting in the 2008 Presidential Election

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Bringing the President Back In: The Collapse of Lehman Brothers and the Evolution of Retrospective Voting in the 2008 Presidential Election

Article excerpt


Despite prevailing negative conditions, initial analyses of the 2008 presidential election, including this one, find significant but not particularly strong economic voting effects during the fall campaign. In this article, the authors pay special attention to how the economic information context changed during the campaign and how those changes affected the evolution of retrospective voting. The findings show that there were two distinct phases of the fall campaign, that retrospective voting was nonexistent prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers but was strong following the collapse. In effect, the collapse of Lehman Brothers turned the election into a referendum election.


economic voting, 2008 presidential election, retrospective voting, economic evaluations, presidential approval

Since the publication of Fiorina's (1981) seminal work, studies of retrospective voting, especially economic retrospective voting, have assumed a prominent role in electoral studies in the United States and around the globe. The central tenet of retrospective voting is that voters make simple assessments about current conditions, broadly defined, and then support or oppose the incumbent administration based on those assessments. While voters may judge the incumbent administration on any number of criteria- foreign policy, the economy, corruption, and so on-much of the focus in studies of retrospective voting has been on the impact of the economic evaluations (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2000, 2007). For instance, election-forecasting models are almost always retrospective in nature and almost always include measures of economic performance as a key retrospective indicator, often in conjunction with a measure of presidential approval (Holbrook 2010).1

At first blush, the 2008 presidential election would seem to offer the perfect context for strong retrospective voting: a declining economy and an unpopular president should both have sent strong signals to the electorate. In short, the economic and political context in 2008 was so negative, in comparison to other years, that forming and using retrospective evaluations should have been a relatively easy task, one that would be expected to result in an Obama victory. However, as we discuss below, there are good reasons to have had more tempered expectations for retrospective voting, and economic voting in particular. More important, however, is that the campaign did not unfold amid a single contextual backdrop; instead, the context of the election changed dramatically with the focus on economic turmoil that began in earnest when Lehman Brothers Inc., a major financial services firm, collapsed on September 15, 2008.2 We take advantage of this important shiftto test ideas about the impact of context on retrospective voting in the 2008 presidential election. Specifically, we examine the evolution of retrospective voting during the fall campaign, paying special attention to the muchdiscussed collapse of the Lehman Brothers financial services corporation as a potential catalyst for retrospective voting. Specifically, we examine whether the collapse of Lehman Brothers served a priming function, leading voters to rely more heavily on economic perceptions following the collapse. We also consider whether the collapse may have helped turn voters' attention to national conditions more generally and led them to assign more weight not just to economic evaluations but also to presidential performance evaluations.

Studies of the 2008 Election

Interesting and important scholarship on the 2008 election is now beginning to emerge, including work on race (Hutchings 2009; Pasek et al. 2009; Philpot, Shaw, and McGowen 2009), campaign effects (Masket 2009; Osborn, McClurg, and Knoll 2010), and the economy (Erikson 2009; Holbrook 2009; Lewis-Beck and Nadeau 2009; Linn, Moody, and Asper 2009). There are a number of findings from these and other studies that provide some insight into the role of the economy. …

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