Political scientist’s book wins award for best in comparative politics
BY FRANZ BROTZEN
Rice News staff
Conventional wisdom says the economy is the paramount issue for voters in any election. Randolph Stevenson, associate professor of political science, set out to determine if that truism is true.
The result was “The Economic Vote: How Political and Economic Institutions Condition Election Results,” a book Stevenson co-authored that proposes a theoretical model to account for how voters decide which candidates to support and how they integrate perceptions of the economy into their decisions. The book won the Gregory Luebbert Prize for the best book in Comparative Politics from the American Political Science Association. Stevenson will receive the prize at the association’s annual meeting this week in Toronto.
Stevenson and co-author Raymond Duch examined data from 163 election studies in 18 countries, going back to 1980, to test their model. While other political scientists have looked into individual countries’ electoral trends for years, “The Economic Vote” takes a general approach, seeking to draw broad conclusions from a wide array of political contexts.
“The book took a long time to write, so it’s really gratifying that our colleagues have recognized our work,” Stevenson said about winning the Luebbert Prize. “We hope it’s the first in a long line of books by us and others that will take this approach to understanding how context impacts political behavior.”
One of the authors’ first challenges was determining the model that best explained voter behavior on economic issues. They dispensed with the notion that voters want to “throw the bums out” after an economic downturn. Instead, they argued, voters tend to search for competent management of the economy. “Specifically,” they wrote, “when voters perceive any relevant differences between candidates in an election, it is rational for them to vote over those differences rather than to try to use their vote to discipline incumbents.”
Voters “are attentive to fluctuations in the macroeconomy,” Stevenson and Duch wrote. Furthermore, they “extract signals about the competency of incumbent politicians from movements in the retrospective economy.”
As for the question of how great a role economic issues play in an election, Stevenson and Duch concluded that it depends on the context. “Economic voting is pervasive,” they wrote, with a poor economy helping opposition parties and hurting incumbents — especially the party of the chief executive. But, “there is significant variation in the magnitude of the economic vote across political and economic contexts,” they noted. “Thus, although worsening economic perceptions almost always lowers support for a chief executive party, the extent of this effect may be larger in some contexts and smaller in others.”
“The Economic Vote” proposes several explanations to account for the contextual variation in political outcomes. Rational voters will weigh “the extent of political (or electoral) control of the economy” as they make their choices. Some systems grant more economic decision-making power to nonelected officials than others, meaning that voters cannot express their concerns about the economy at the ballot box in the same way in different countries.
Moreover, those choices are shaped by “the concentration and distribution of policymaking responsibility over parties.” Economic voting patterns vary from two-party systems to multiparty ones. But the salient point is that the more responsibility a party has for economic policy, the more voters will punish — or reward — it for economic failure or success.
Finally, “voters condition their economic vote on the extent to which parties are ‘in contention’ for policymaking responsibility in the future,” Stevenson and Duch said. If they see an opposition party has a realistic chance to unseat the incumbents, voters are more likely to weigh the economy in their selection. Similarly, when the outcome is seen as decided before Election Day, voters are less likely to base their decisions on the economy.
Stevenson said his research on the economic vote could also be applied to other factors influencing voters’ behavior, like ideology. But for now, he’s satisfied to have answered questions about one key factor in the calculus of elections.