Incumbents and Economic Voting: Lessons for 2010?

The NY Times has released a new poll today which basically says that while voters are not thrilled with President Obama’s job performance, they are even less thrilled with Republicans in Congress. Particularly interesting is that attempts to tar the Republicans as the party of no combined with Obama’s gestures at bipartisanship seem to be working: 62% of respondents see Obama as trying to work with Republicans in Congress, while the same percentage believes that Republicans in Congress are not trying to work with Obama to get things done. This is not good news for Republicans in Congress, as large majorities of respondents think both Obama and Cogressional Republicans should be compromising to get things done (see here and here).

All of this raises the interesting question: what happens in an election when voters are angry at everyone?

When I was first reading the classic political science works on economic voting in US congressional elections, I was struck by the fact that the “incumbent” in all of these studies – as in, incumbents should perform worse when economic conditions are worse – were almost uniformly defined as as congressional candidates from the president’s party. Thus a congressman who had been in office for twenty years would not be considered an incumbent if he or she was from a different party than the president, while his or her first time challenger – who could have never held national office – would be coded as the incumbent, as long as he or she was in the same party as the president. Off the top of my head, I’m not aware of any study of economic voting in the United States which tracks whether poor economic conditions adversely effect incumbents – defined now as the actual office holder – from both political parties. I ask this because I wonder whether it is possible that we could be heading into an election where sitting office holders from both political parties risk the ire of the voters.

The only work on economic voting of which I am aware where the actual incumbent office holders are included in the analysis as such concerns work done in Poland (ungated draft and gated) and Ukraine (gated) by Kazimierz M. Slomczynski, Goldie Shabad, and Jakub Zielinski, although even in these countries they find that the effect of the economy is conditioned on whether an individual legislator is a member of the opposition party or the governing party (although there are also interesting findings in the Poland piece about legislators who attempt to avoid the voters’ wrath by switching to a new party).

So I’m interested in opening this up to discussion. More generally, is it time to revisit what we mean by “incumbents”? As I have noted in my own research, figuring out how to code incumbents in multi-party system, especially unstable ones, is often not intuitively obvious. More specifically, is there any literature out there tests whether voters ever punish actual incumbent office holders in the US regardless of which party they are in? How about any evidence of this occurring outside of the United States? And if such research exists, can it give us any insight into the coming 2010 US mid-term elections? Received wisdom from existing research on economic voting in the US would suggest that the president’s party will be in trouble. But then what are we to make of the NY Times poll showing that voters are even more disappointed with Congressional Republicans than they are with the sitting President?

One Response to Incumbents and Economic Voting: Lessons for 2010?

  1. Larry Bartels February 12, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Clark Tibbits, “Majority Votes and the Business Cycle,” American Journal of Sociology, 1932 (using data from 1882 and 1884). Kramer writes, “Although Tibbits regarded the thesis as verified, the data he presents are not very convincing.”

    I assume others have tried this (as they have tried every conceivable specification of economic voting models); but it requires one to ignore lots of good evidence that voters see little connection between “Republicans in Congress” and their own Republican member of Congress.