Winning Proposal to the Pierce Scholar's Fund: 2009 Competition

Project Title: Part-Time Economic Voters: When and how contextual clarity produces economic voting

Faculty Sponsor and PI: Rob Salmond

Ph.D. Student: Cassandra Grafstrom

Project Description

One significant part of the literature on economic voting asks whether the degree of economic voting is dependent on institutional context. Following Powell and Whitten (1993), many have argued that in institutional contexts in which the locus of credit or blame for economic outcomes is clear to the voter, economic voting will be prevalent (eg. Samuels 2004, Anderson 2006). In contexts with multiple conflicting sources of economic responsibility, however, voters will become baffled about whom to reward or punish for the nation’s economic fate, and will therefore vote on other grounds instead.

Almost without exception, scholars have tested this theory by looking for a direct correlation between institutional "clarity of responsibility" and levels of economic voting. The clarity of responsibility theory, however, implies a far richer and more indirect causal chain than this: institutional conditions do not unconditionally turn into vote outcomes.

Instead, those institutions that induce clear lines of economic responsibility likely operate by triggering a recursive process of both campaigning by elites and absorption of campaign information by voters, and that recursive process gradually causes higher levels of economic voting in high clarity contexts. We suggest that institutional conditions that are permissive towards profitable partisan campaigning based around the economy (that is, conditions with clear lines of economic responsibility) should lead elite actors to undertake campaign strategies that emphasize the economy in advantageous circumstances, and should also induce citizens in those nations, through multiple exposures to these more economically-focused campaign messages, to know more about their national economy. High levels of economic voting should, therefore, only emerge when institutional conditions promoting clear lines of economic responsibility coincide with both increased economic knowledge by citizens.

In this project, we seek to better understand the causal chain that leads from institutional conditions to economic voting. We specifically seek to discover:

  • what strategic decisions by political elites mediate the institution - behavior relationship;
  • which citizens are most likely to only vote the economy when responsibility is clear, but ignore the economy when responsibility is complex;
  • what dynamics of the recursive process between elite provision of economic information and public knowledge about the economy exist.

Our strategy in summer 2009 is to develop this idea into a conference paper that we hope to present at MPSA 2010 and subsequently submit for possible publication in a peer-reviewed journal. To do so, we first need to develop and refine our theory about institutional context and economic voting in a more extended form than we have given above. Second, we need to collate suitable data and test that theory. The second task represents the majority of our work on this project during summer 2009. It relies on building a dataset featuring cross-national time-series survey data for measures of knowledge about the economy (the Eurobarometer series is promising in this regard); utilizing Comparative Manifestos Project data for indicators of elite campaigning of different issues; and using standard sources (World Bank etc) for official data about the economy. There are substantial challenges in building a dataset of this type, especially one that spans multiple iterations of the Eurobarometer survey series. Most of the Eurobarometer surveys, for example, do not feature factual knowledge questions about the economy, but one or two do have such variables. The challenge for us is to develop from the standard Eurobarometer variables a good proxy measure for economic knowledge. Given these kinds of challenges, we therefore approach this task with caution. But we consider that the potential payoff of understanding the individual level mechanisms (at both the elite and mass levels) that make up the causal chain leading from institutional design to voting behavior represent a valuable advance in the literature in this area, and the effort is therefore worthwhile.