Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Conditional Impact of Blame Attribution on the Relationship between Economic Adversity and Turnout

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Conditional Impact of Blame Attribution on the Relationship between Economic Adversity and Turnout

Article excerpt

Previous research has found that those facing economic adversity are less likely to vote. This has serious implications for the nature of democratic accountability, since those who are less likely to vote in an economic downturn may also be the ones most likely to punish the incumbent party. In fact, some have used aggregated electoral data to justify such a claim (Radcliff 1994). However, such conclusions are premature. Once the intervening effects of blame attribution are taken into consideration, there are conditions under which economic adversity actually enhances turnout. Data from the American National Election Studies (1990-98) demonstrate that those facing economic adversity are more likely to vote when they blame the government for economic outcomes. These are the same people who have been shown in numerous economic voting studies to be much less supportive of the in-party. These findings suggest that economic adversity does not necessarily constrain democratic accountability and highlight the perils associated with making inferences about individual-level behavior with aggregate data.

At the bare minimum, democratic representation requires that citizens use elections as a blunt instrument to monitor and sanction their elected officials. V. O. Key's (1966) reward-punishment thesis has often been used as an empirical benchmark of whether citizens are exercising democratic control. In short, Key contends that effective democratic control exists when citizens vote against incumbents of the in-party when times are bad and vote for incumbents of the in-party when times are good.1 There are many ways in which individuals can judge whether times are good or bad, yet economic performance is probably the most prominent. The economy plays a central role in people's ability to provide for themselves and their families. It garners a great deal of media coverage and occupies a perennial position in political campaigns. For these reasons, the effect of the economy on elections has attracted much attention from students of voting behavior.

The conventional wisdom in the voting literature suggests that the state of the economy is reflected in voting choices when voters believe that government policies are at least in part responsible for economic outcomes (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2000). These empirical findings bode well for the effectiveness of democratic control in the U.S.; but deciding which party should be punished or rewarded is only half of the story. Citizens must actually cast these votes in order to make their voices heard and truly exercise democratic control. Thus, the relationship between the economy and turnout is potentially as important as the relationship between the economy and vote choice in terms of assessing democratic control.

The dominant view in the literature on the relationship between the economy and turnout derives from Rosenstone's (1982) findings that those facing economic hardship are less likely to vote. Since those facing economic adversity (i.e., people whose personal financial situation has worsened) should be more inclined to punish the incumbent party, the in-party (usually defined as the party of the president) may escape punishment at the ballot box when the economy worsens (Radcliff 1994). Yet this is only true if those who blame the government for economic outcomes are also less likely to vote. A negative relationship between economic adversity and turnout is not problematic if turnout is higher among the subset of those facing economic hardship who hold the government responsible for the economy.

ECONOMIC ADVERSITY AND TURNOUT

Rosenstone (1982) lays out three competing hypotheses regarding the relationship between economic adversity and participation. The Mobilization Hypothesis states that economic adversity increases the probability a citizen will vote: "people under economic strain blame the government for their situation and vote...to redress their grievances" (Rosenstone 1982: 25; Schlozman and Verba 1979). …

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