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Sept. 29, 2004


Local economy doesn't drive voters' choices, study says

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Is it really the economy, stupid?

Democrats rallied behind that phrase in 1992 but a U-M researcher says that, despite the conventional wisdom of political pundits, voters don't pick a president based on the previous four years of economic conditions or on the local economy.

"We find the incumbent doesn't appear to be held accountable for the economy," said Daniel Eisenberg, assistant professor of health management and policy at the U-M School of Public Health. "Local-level economic performance seems to matter very little."

Eisenberg became curious about the connection between the economy and elections while working on his doctorate in economics at Stanford University. He evaluated data for 18 national elections, from 1932 to 2000, and for county-level elections from 1972-2000, looking to see whether the local or national economy predicted an incumbent's votes for re-election.

Eisenberg had his results published in the online journal Topics in Economic Analysis and Policy. His co-author Jonathan Ketcham is joining the University of Southern California this year as an assistant research professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

"National economic conditions do affect the incumbent's vote share," Eisenberg said. "Previous research has shown this and our results are consistent with this finding."

But voters who lived in counties with particularly bad economic conditions were only slightly less likely to vote for a presidential incumbent.

Similarly, a depressed economy for the length of the president's first term did not automatically predict voters turning down the incumbent's bid for re-election. "We find that it's really just the last year of the economic performance that matters most," Eisenberg said.

"Such voting behavior provides incumbents and their parties with incentives to focus on short-term election-year stimulation at the expense of the three years following the election," Eisenberg and Ketcham wrote.

Ketcham connected the research to this year's election: "John Kerry has often pointed out that the economy has fewer jobs than when George W. Bush took office, but this isn't want people have typically looked at," he said. "Voters are more likely to consider the fact that unemployment has dropped to 5.4 percent in August from 6.3 percent in June 2003 than to consider that it has climbed from 4.2 percent when Bush took office."

"Our results suggest that Bush should not be counted out in counties or states that have been hardest hit by the recent recession," the authors wrote. "The most important economic factor appears to be national performance in the most recent year, and these indicators in 2004 to this point are favorable."

Black voters, women, and those who are not elderly are more likely to vote in sync with the economic conditions—converse being that older white men seem to put less stock in recent economic situation when they vote.

The authors note that local and national economic voting are connected—we form our notion of the country's health by looking around us—but they are not the same. They compare it to the difference between "pocketbook" voting, which is based on personal effects, and "sociotropic" voting, which is motivated by a sense of what is best for society. Though the two are associated, they are not identical.

Of the various economic indicators they considered, national unemployment mattered the most. Each 1 point increase in the unemployment rate nationally corresponded with a 3.2 percent point decline in the incumbent's vote share. Unemployment only showed statistically significant effects at the national level, not more locally.

It might seem an unlikely connection that a School of Public Health faculty member would examine voter behavior and the economy. There are numerous connections to Eisenberg's work, though.

He is an economist by training, and he has applied that to health care research. So he has a fundamental interest in economic questions.

He is curious about how people make decisions, whether related to economics or health, and whether they are rational in those decisions. "This seems to me to be affirmation of the rationality of voters, since the presidential administration's influence on economic conditions should mostly be at the national level, to the extent that it's important at all," he said.

Tying his economics background with his public health career, Eisenberg said it would be interesting to do a similar analysis looking at whether people's perceptions of their personal health affect voting patterns.

He is working on research to a variety of topics, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in elementary schools, the relationship between smoking and body weight, and peer effects on adolescent smoking, drinking and drug use.

For more information on Eisenberg, visit:

To read the full article:


Contact: Colleen Newvine
Phone: (734) 647-4411