Partisan Biases in Economic Accountability
Of all races in an advanced stage of civilization, the
American is the least accessible to long views. …
Always and everywhere in a hurry to get rich, he does
not give a thought to remote consequences; he sees
only present advantages.… He does not remember,
he does not feel, he lives in a materialist dream.
-Moiseide Ostrogorski, 19021
THE ANALYSIS OF party coalitions presented in chapter 3 identified the most important explanation for why Republicans have been more successful in recent national elections than they were during the New Deal era—the shift of the Solid South from Democratic to Republican control in the wake of the civil rights movement. That shift has produced a remarkably even partisan balance in the national electorate, with middle- and upper-income whites leaning toward the Republicans and poorer whites and African Americans being predominantly Democratic. Republican candidates won 51.7% of all the votes cast for major-party candidates in the fourteen presidential elections from 1952 through 2004; Democratic candidates captured 48.3%.
However, this account leaves unresolved the puzzle raised by the partisan pattern of income growth documented in chapter 2: how do Republicans win even a bare plurality of votes when most of the electorate has been substantially worse off under Republican presidents than under Democrats? Even allowing for some class bias in turnout, it is clear that most voters—including most Republican voters—have experienced much more economic prosperity under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents. Why, then, have Democrats not been rewarded and Republicans not been punished for the striking partisan gap in income growth documented in figure 2.1?
My resolution of this puzzle hinges on three notable biases in the workings of economic accountability in contemporary American electoral politics. First, voters are myopic, responding strongly to income growth in presidential election years but ignoring or forgetting most of the rest of the incumbent administration's record of economic performance. As Ostrogorski surmised more than a century ago, the American voter “sees only present advantages.” Second,
1 Ostrogorski (1902), 302–303.