Is Unemployment Actually Helping the Democrats?

This article calls into question the conventional wisdom that incumbent parties are rewarded when unemployment is low and punished when it is high. Using county-level data on unemployment and election returns for 175 midterm gubernatorial elections and 4 presidential elections from 1994 to 2010, the analysis finds that unemployment and the Democratic vote for president and governor move together. Other things being equal, higher unemployment increases the vote shares of Democratic candidates. The effect is greatest when Republicans are the incumbent party, but Democrats benefit from unemployment even when they are in control. The explanation for these findings is that unemployment is a partisan issue for voters, not a valence issue, and that the Democratic Party “owns” unemployment. When unemployment is high or rising, Democratic candidates can successfully convince voters that they are the party best able to solve the problem.

From a soon-to-be published article (gated, alas) by political scientist Jack Wright.  But those interested can contact Wright here.

4 Responses to Is Unemployment Actually Helping the Democrats?

  1. Andrew Gelman September 15, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    Talk about perverse incentives! Does this imply that, if only he’d bumped up unemployment a bit more, maybe Jimmy Carter would’ve been reelected?

  2. n September 16, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    “conflicting local perception” voters

    I’ve seen internet comments wondering if state employment changes have this effect. The strongest interest has been in context of swing states.
    Also, California’s (not a swing state) state average unemployment is bad, but the metros have better unemployment rates.

    I think this curiosity about “conflicting local perception” voter might be satisfied by overlaying counties voting rates with counties’ correlating economic indicators…

  3. tunde edun September 16, 2012 at 8:17 am #


  4. Rob Robinson September 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    As I saw pointed out earlier today, people forget that under Carter, it wasn’t just the unemployment, or even the direction of unemployment, but rampant inflation that made people unhappy. Food and gas spikes aside, not an issue at present.