Evaluations of Government Performance

Rather than choosing among candidates on the basis of specific issues of public policy, voters may rely more on general evaluations of the performance of government. A presidential election is, at least in part, a referendum on the performance of the incumbent administration. This referendum aspect surely is present when the incumbent president is running for reelection, which was the case in 2012. Even when the incumbent president is not running for reelection, voter attitudes toward the performance of the administration play a strong role in the election, as the 2008 election showed.

Retrospective evaluations of government performance are an important determinant of voting behavior, and this effect should be distinguished from the influence of policy issues (Fiorina 1981, 3-12; Miller and Shanks 1996; 370-388). Policy issues involve differences over what the government should do — they are prospective in nature. Performance evaluations involve differences over how well the government has done — they are retrospective in nature. Quite often, we find agreement over what the government should accomplish but disagreement over how well the goals have been achieved. Basic goals such as low unemployment, low inflation, steady economic growth, national security, and world peace are shared by all. Candidates do differ in their prescriptions for economic health or national security, but discussions of the details of macroeconomic theory or of diplomatic strategies may not be followed by many voters. More relevant are general perceptions of whether the economy or national security has improved or declined in recent years.

The importance of these factors is reflected by the emphasis given to them in recent presidential elections. Republicans in 1980 sought to tie negative evaluations of the economy and the international environment to perceptions of President Carter's competence. In 1984, the Republican emphasis was on the improvement in the economy and the international environment that occurred during the first Reagan administration. Similar claims were made by Republicans in 1988, while Democrats countered that everything was not so well off. In 1992, Democrats argued that President Bush was responsible for the poor health of the economy, while Republicans claimed that the nation's economic problems were exaggerated by the media. In 1996, President Clinton's reelection campaign highlighted the peace and prosperity of the prior four years. In 2000, many observers felt that Gore did not spend enough time in his campaign talking about the economic record of the Clinton administration — as vice-president, Gore should have been able to benefit from the prosperity of the previous eight years. In 2004, questions about how well President Bush had managed the war in Iraq were central to the election campaign. In 2008, widespread concerns about both the economy and the war in Iraq shaped Obama's campaign strategy. In 2012, the slow economic recovery was the factor Republicans highlighted in their attempt to defeat Obama.

The importance of the economy in presidential elections, especially those involving the incumbent president, is illustrated by the results of the above elections. Four of these elections produced a change in party control of the White House; three of the four changes occurred in years when there was great public concern about the economy: 1980, 1992, and 2008. The influence of evaluations of economic performance on voting behavior involves several factors. First is the voter's assessment of national conditions, such as the state of the economy. A second factor is the voter's evaluation of government performance in dealing with the conditions. For example, a voter might feel that national economic conditions have deteriorated but that it is not the government's fault. Also, we should distinguish between government performance in general and presidential performance in particular, at least if we are concerned with presidential elections. A voter might feel that the federal government is responsible for the poor state of the economy, but that it is Congress that deserves the blame. Similarly, a voter could believe that the incumbent administration deserves little credit for a healthy economy, a claim made by many Republicans in 2000. For the most part, though, voters tend to assign economic responsibility to the president in particular and his party in general, which is why a deteriorating economy is usually bad news for the party in the White House.

Economic conditions may affect perceptions of government performance, and thereby the vote, in two ways (Kiewiet 1983):

  • One possibility is that the effect is largely a personal one, with voters reacting primarily to their own economic situation — for example, blaming the administration in power if unemployment and inflation have made their situation worse than it had been.

  • The other possibility is that voters evaluate the economic performance of an administration quite apart from their own economic circumstances. As the economy deteriorates, people may feel that the president is doing a poor job, even if they have not personally suffered.

This dataset contains information on a variety of assessments and perceptions of economic conditions and government performance, thereby allowing for an examination of the role of retrospective evaluations in voting behavior.

Foreign affairs and national security are another dimension along which voters may evaluate the performance of the incumbent administration. In some years, this has been a major factor. For example, dissatisfaction with the handling of the Korean War by President Truman and the Vietnam War by President Johnson contributed greatly to Republican victories in the 1952 and 1968 presidential elections, respectively. In 2004, national security in general and the war in Iraq in particular were salient topics in the presidential election. In other years, the absence of a war or foreign crisis results in foreign affairs and national security issues playing a smaller role in the election campaign. Even in these years, however, they probably still influence voting behavior, as the absence of any foreign crisis will usually mean that the president will be credited with doing a good job of managing foreign affairs. For example, the reelections of Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996 were aided by the peace as well as the prosperity at the time.

References on Voting Behavior