Bryan Caplan  

Systematically Biased Beliefs About Political Influence: A Quick Survey of the Literature

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From Caplan-Crampton-Grove-Somin's new working paper:
Earlier researchers have already identified some systematic biases that undermine retrospective voting.  Voters myopically reward and punish politicians for recent economic performance.  (Bartels 2010; Achen and Bartels 2008, 2004a)  Partisanship heavily distorts voters' attributional judgments. (Marsh and Tilley 2009; Rudolph 2006, 2003a, 2003b; Bartels 2002)  Supporters of incumbent parties are eager to credit the government for good outcomes and reluctant to blame it for bad outcomes, opponents of incumbent parties do the opposite - and both sides can't be right.  Voters also reward and punish politicians for outcomes that are clearly irrelevant or beyond their control, such as local football victories, world oil prices, and the state of the world economy. (Wolfers 2011; Healy, Malhotra, and Mo 2010; Leigh 2009; Achen and Bartels 2004b)  Arceneaux and Stein (2006) report that many voters incorrectly blamed the incumbent mayor of the city of Houston for the county government's flood policy.  Iyengar (1989: 878) finds important framing effects: "agents of causal responsibility are viewed negatively while agents of treatment responsibility are viewed positively."  Healy and Malhotra (2009) show that voters reward politicians for disaster relief spending, but not disaster prevention spending, even though prevention is demonstrably more cost-effective.  Marsh and Tilley (2009), Tilley, Garry, and Bold (2008), Arceneaux and Stein (2006), Rudolph (2003a), and Gomez and Wilson (2001) find systematic effects of education and/or political sophistication on attributional judgments.
But be forewarned:

Our results do not imply, of course, that the American public's beliefs about political influence are biased in every conceivable respect.  Voters' attributional judgments often respond in rational ways to divided government (Rudolph 2003a; Whitten and Palmer 1999; Lewis-Beck 1997; Leyden and Borrelli 1995; Alesina and Rosenthal 1995; Powell and Whitten 1993) and federalism (Arceneaux 2006; Anderson 2006; Cutler 2004; Stein 1990).  Nevertheless, the American public's beliefs about political influence are biased in some important respects, raising serious questions about the ability of retrospective voting to circumvent other slippages in the democratic process.

References

Achen, Christopher, and Larry Bartels.  2008.  "Myopic Retrospection and Party Realignment in the Great Depression."  Working Paper, Princeton University.

Achen, Christopher, and Bartels, Larry.  2004a.  "Musical Chairs: Pocketbook Voting and the Limits of Democratic Accountability."  Working Paper, Princeton University.

Achen, Christopher, and Bartels, Larry.  2004b. "Blind Retrospection Electoral Responses to Drought, Flu, and Shark Attacks."  Working Paper, Princeton University.

Alesina, Alberto, and Howard Rosenthal.  1995.  Partisan Politics, Divided Government, and the Economy.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Anderson, Cameron.  2006.  "Economic Voting and Multilevel Governance: A Comparative Individual-Level Analysis."  American Journal of Political Science 50(2): 449-63.

Arceneaux, Kevin.  2006.  "The Federal Face of Voting: Are Elected Officials Held Accountable for the Functions Relevant to Their Office?"  Political Psychology 27(5): 731-54.

Arceneaux, Kevin, and Robert Stein.  2006.  "Who is Held Responsible When Disaster Strikes? The Attribution of Responsibility for a Natural Disaster in an Urban Election."  Journal of Urban Affairs 28(1): 43-53.

Bartels, Larry.  2010.  Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bartels, Larry.  2002.  "Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions."  Political Behavior 24(2): 117-50.

Cutler, Fred.  2008.  "Whodunnit?  Voters and Responsibility in Canadian Federalism."  Canadian Journal of Political Science 41(3): 627-54.

Gomez, Brad and J. Wilson.  2001.  "Political Sophistication and Economic Voting in the American Electorate: A Theory of Heterogeneous Attribution." American Journal of Political Science 45(4): 899-914.

Healy, Andrew, and Neil Malhotra.  2009.  "Myopic Voters and Natural Disaster Policy."  American Political Science Review 103(3): 387-406

Healy, Andrew, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo. 2010.  "Irrelevant Events Affect Voters' Evaluations of Government Performance."  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(29): 12804-09.

Iyengar, Shanto.  1989.  "How Citizens Think About National Issues: A Matter of Responsibility."  American Journal of Political Science 33(4): 878-900.

Leigh, Andrew.  2009.  "Does the World Economy Swing National Elections?" Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 71(2): 163-81.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S.  1997.  "Who's the Chef?  Economic Voting Under a Dual Executive." European Journal of Political Research 31: 315-25.

Leyden, Kevin, and Stephen Borrelli.  1995.  "The Effect of State Economic Conditions on Gubernatorial Elections: Does Unified Government Make a Difference?"  Political Research Quarterly 48(2): 275-90.

Marsh, Michael, and James Tilley.  2009.  "The Attribution of Credit and Blame to Governments and Its Impact on Vote Choice."  British Journal of Political Science 40: 115-34.

Powell, G., and Guy Whitten.  1993.  "A Cross-National Analysis of Economic Voting: Taking Account of the Political Context" American Journal of Political Science 37(2): 391-414.

Rudolph, Thomas.  2006.  "Triangulating Political Responsibility: The Motivated Formation of Responsibility Judgments."  Political Psychology 27(1): 99-122.

Rudolph, Thomas.  2003a.  "Institutional Context and the Assignment of Political Responsibility."  Journal of Politics 65(1): 190-215.

Rudolph, Thomas.  2003b.  "Who's Responsible for the Economy?  The Formation and Consequences of Responsibility Attributions."  American Journal of Political Science 47(4): 698-713.

Stein, Robert.  1990.  "Economic Voting for Governor and U.S. Senator: The Electoral Consequences of Federalism" Journal of Politics 52(1): 29-53.

Tilley, James, John Garry, and Tessa Bold.  2008.  "Perceptions and Reality: Economic Voting at the 2004 European Parliament Elections."  European Journal of Political Research 47(5): 665-86.

Whitten, Guy, and Harvey Palmer.  1999.  "Cross-National Analyses of Economic Voting."  Electoral Studies 18(1): 49-67.

Wolfers, Justin.  2011.  "Are Voters Rational?  Evidence from Gubernatorial Elections."  Working Paper, University of Pennsylvania.



COMMENTS (1 to date)
stickman writes:

Bryan,

Not directly related to the issue you are discussing here (i.e. sphere of political influence), but I'm wondering whether you've incorporated/looked into "backfire" much during the course of your work?

Backfire - as the name suggests - is the phenomenon whereby facts don't necessarily have the power to change people's minds... Indeed, quite the opposite, as people actually tend to cling to their beliefs more strongly when presented with opposing evidence.

More on this concept and its relevance to political ideologies here and here.

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