Perception vs Reality: How Does The British Electorate Evaluate Economic Performance of Incumbent Governments In The Post War Period?

Mar 2016 | 143

Authors: Jonathon M. Clegg


Rational retrospective voting models have dominated the literature on election forecasting and the economic vote since they were first proposed by Anthony Downs in 1957. The theory views voters as appraisers of incumbent government’s past performance, which acts as the principal source of information individuals use when making their vote. Pure retrospective voting requires far less of the electorate in order to hold a government accountable and empirical work based on this theory has been very adept at predicting election outcomes and explaining individual voting decisions. In terms of the time period assessed to form judgements on past performance however, there is a surprising disconnect between the theoretical line of thought and actual testing. The sensible assumption of retrospective voting models is that voters, looking to judge a government’s past performance, should assess changes in their own welfare over an entire term of office, with little or no discounting of past events. The majority of empirical studies however, focus on economic performance over shorter time horizons, usually within a year of an election. There have only been a handful of studies attempting to empirically test the correct temporal relationship between changes in economic indicators and election outcomes, despite its importance for retrospective voting models and democratic accountability. This working paper empirically tests over which time horizons changes in macroeconomic fundamentals continue to have a significant bearing on election outcomes in Post War Britain. It finds that longer-term measures of economic change, over entire government terms, are better at predicting changes in incumbent’s vote shares than shorter-term measures, closer to the election period. This has important consequences for future voting models and is a promising result for democratic accountability.

JEL Codes: D72, C52

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