I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to this recent workshop on economic voting in developing democracies held in São Paulo, Brazil. The workshop brought together a number of international researchers focusing on the phenomenon of economic voting in developing countries. Much of the work presented employed public opinion data on why and how citizens in developing democracies vote. The workshop was hosted by the University of São Paulo which is a leading South American University in many fields, including political science.
The term economic voting can generally be described as voters rewarding or punishing incumbents based on economic performance. The 1992 U.S. presidential election is a notable example. This is when the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” was coined by James Carville. Despite then President Bush’s (41) popularity after the Gulf War, an economic downturn caused many voters to punish him by voting for Bill Clinton.
Political scientists have studied economic voting for decades. Almost all of this work has examined so-called advanced industrial democracies. For years scholars were perplexed by the mixed results they received when examining economic voting cross-nationally. In short, economic voting was present sometimes and not others. This spurred some political scientists to theorize on why this was the case. Powell and Whitten (1993) was the seminal work in this area. The authors theorized that voters only reward or punish incumbents when they can clearly discern which branch or individual in government is responsible for the economy. They called their theory “clarity of responsibility,” and it is still pervasive in the literature today. Some countries have complex governing institutions while others are often governed by coalitions of more than one party. In these cases it becomes more difficult for voters to accurately place blame or give credit for economic performance prior to an election.
Our workshop built on these existing theories but also tried to extend them settings where economic voting is less understood. Most of the papers were looking at economic voting in South America while my co-authored paper was looking at cases of economic voting in Africa. The findings from most of the papers were in line with the general theory of economic voting. That is, voters reward incumbents when the economy is doing well and punish them when it is doing poorly. This was the case even in the most developing and least democratically consolidated countries we studied. This is an interesting finding as it further pushes what we know about how voters operate in different political contexts. It also tells us that voters make choices based on similar information, no matter where they are.
The above discussion highlights two key areas for further thought when it comes to voting research. First, voters consider the economy one of the most important factors when considering how to cast their ballots. Other things such as ideology and partisanship are no less important, but the economy is one of the most variant influences on voters that we know of, which means it can more easily influence changes in how one votes. Second, voters can be affected by context. If a voter is in a country with a strong executive and weak legislature then they are more likely to place blame on the president in the event of a bad economy (or reward the president when the economy is doing well). On the other hand, if they are in a system in which it is less clear exactly who controls matters relating to economic performance, then the executive or party in power may be unaffected at the polls when it comes to economic performance.
Any study of voting must consider the contextual factors that can influence the vote. This applies to studies of both voter turnout and vote choice. This then requires any voting researcher to consider the ways in which voters receive information. In our paper we found that African countries with more open media are more likely to experience some form of economic voting. This highlights the need for further research in the area of media freedom and vote choice. This is especially true for nascent democracies with relatively free and fair elections but underdeveloped media penetration.
Economic voting most closely relates to our ongoing Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) project at FMG. Understanding the difficulties and motivations of American voters in other countries poses many challenges. Along with various methodological hurdles among the other challenges are questions about whether these voters cast their ballots for similar reasons as their stateside counterparts. For example, does the domestic economy factor into their voting calculus? These are the types of questions that political science research can help untangle.