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UVM POLS 125 - The AmericanVoter and the Economy

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The American Voter andthe Economy, 2008Robert S. Erikson, Columbia University...............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................Why did Obama defeat McCain in 2008?As with any national election outcome,the immediate culprit that comes to mindis economic performance. When the U.S.is prosperous, the electorate votes theincumbent presidential party back into office. When the U.S.economy sours, the incumbent (or incumbent party) loses. In2008, the application of this rule led to a correct predictiononce again. Economy up, Republicans out. It is difficult tochallenge this conventional wisdom that the economy con-tributed to the transfer of the White House from the Repub-licans to Democrat Obama.Perhaps the simplest evidence that the economy matters isthe relationship between public beliefs about the economyand the vote for president. Figure 1 presents one demonstra-tion. The dependent variable is the vote for the president’sparty over the eight elections from 1980–2008. The indepen-dent variable, from the University of Michigan’s Survey ofConsumers, is the net response to the survey question whetherbusiness conditions have improved or gotten worse over theprevious year. The timing of the survey data is for the thirdquarter of the election year. The correlation (r=+.88) is impres-sive. From 1980 through 2004 the observations are virtuallyon a straight line. Only 2000 stands out as an outlier, servingto highlight once again that Gore “should” have won and wonhandily (not just in a popular-vote squeaker).In the third quarter of 2008, even with most readings beforethe September crash, the public’s estimate of business condi-tions was the worst ever recorded for an election campaign.With the 1980–2004 observations in Figure 1 as a guide, onecould have forecast for 2008 a Democratic win of almost 60–40,or true landslide proportions. By this benchmark, losing “only”about 53.7 to 46.3 (as the percent of the two-party vote), McCaingot more votes than he “deserved.” Thus the economy mat-tered, with the only question being why it did not drag downthe Republican presidential ticket even more.THE CAMPAIGN AND ECONOMIC VOTINGIt is often said that voters learn about the economy from thecampaign. Before the formal campaign starts, potential votersare not thinking much about the connection between eco-nomic conditions and their future vote choices. As the cam-paign evolves, voters begin to take the economy into account.In this way the campaign brings the economy (and other fun-damentals) to the voters (Bartels 2006).Figure 2 dramatically illustrates the importance of the cam-paign to generate economic voting. It replicates the scatter-plot of Figure 1, this time relating poll results in April of theelection year to economic perceptions in the first quarter ofthe election year.1The relationship between economic percep-tion and vote choice—so strong by Election Day—has not yetmade an appearance as of April. In fact, for the eight electionsshown in Figure 2, the relationship is slightly negative. Whileeconomic perceptions in the first quarter of the election yearprovide forecasters an early indication of the election result tocome, voters in the spring have not yet begun to take the econ-omy into account when asked about their November votes.Somehow, as the campaign evolves, the electorate beginsto shift its vote in the direction of its assessment of economicconditions—toward the incumbent party if favorable, againstif not. We might expect that we can observe this shift as a timeseries. As the economic outlook changes day to day, so mightthe presidential polls. For most election years such an exercisecan only be a dream because there is not the density of pollingto measure movement on anything like a daily basis. And formost years, there are no great sudden shifts in the economythat could register a voter upheaval.The 2008 campaign provides an exception on both grounds.The economic meltdown of mid-September led an already pes-simistic public to get more negative in its economic evalua-tion. Meanwhile McCain lost support in the polls. FromSeptember 15 through November 4, we have daily readings ofboth economic opinion and the election polls.Figure 3 provides the time series. The x axis shows theelectorate’s net belief about the economy. The scale is percentclaiming the economy is “excellent” or “good” minus the pro-portion saying it is “poor.” (“Fair” is the in-between option.)The vote estimate is the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average forMcCain (transformed into a two-party vote) for the date.Becausethe RCPmeasure isanaverageof recent polls fromdif-ferenthouses, I matched each date’saveragevote with the aver-age economic evaluation in polls conducted three days earlier.Note the positive relationship.The evidence begins on Sep-tember 15 (in the upper-right-hand corner) back when McCainwas competitive. It ends in the cloud of observations on thelower left. As perceptions of the economy sank, so did McCain’sfortunes in the polls. Interestingly a further regression analy-sis, shown in Table 1, suggests that economic evaluations werecausally responsible for the vote shift. The equation predictedthe daily trial-heat poll margins from economic evaluationsplus the latest Dow Jones closing average and a time trend.Economic perceptions and (to a lesser extent) time are statis-tically significant. The Dow Jones average does not quite passthe significance test. The downward slide of McCain’s pollnumbers was a direct response to the public’s growing eco-nomic pessimism................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................SYMPOSIUM...............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................doi:10.1017/S1049096509090751 PS • July 2009 467So far we have seen that the economy matters and affectsthe trajectory of the intended vote over the course of the cam-paign. The lesson is not to force the untenable idea that


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