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Pocketbook Politics and Short Memories

Bright IdeasSpring 2012  |  Share This  |  E-mail  |  Print  | 
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receipt-250One factor will go a long way toward determining whether President Obama—or any incumbent president—is re-elected, claims a Vanderbilt political scientist.

Here it is: If the real disposable incomes of voters are growing—even modestly—in the six months before Election Day, Obama is likely to win. If they aren’t, he is likely to lose. So says Larry Bartels, the May Werthan Shayne Professor of Public Policy and Social Science and professor of political science.

Among the many economic indicators featured in the news, this one (which includes income from wages, investments, tax cuts and government benefits) is the most reliable predictor of an incumbent’s fortunes. More familiar indicators like unemployment and gross domestic product growth seem to matter much less, probably because they are less closely tied to the average voter’s sense of economic

Voters often do a poor job of per- ceiving why economic conditions improve or deteriorate, says Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels.

Voters often do a poor job of per- ceiving why economic conditions improve or deteriorate, says Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels.

According to Bartels, who has researched voter trends for more than three decades, election-year income growth is more important than campaign-specific factors like who the opposition party nominates. It is also more important than economic performance over the incumbent’s entire term. Thus, even though the economy has been faltering for much of Obama’s
presidency, he could be propelled to victory by an upturn in real incomes in the months leading up to the election.

“Voters tend to have very short memories,” says Bartels, who co-directs the Vanderbilt Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. So if things are looking better this year, “that’s going to be a huge plus for Obama despite the fact that people have felt a lot of pain up until this point.”

Bartels has done extensive research on the impact of economic conditions on voting behavior, and his work is cited frequently in the national press. His 2008 book, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton University Press), was cited by Obama during his first presidential campaign and was named in The New York Times as one of the “economics books of the year.”

Both political parties are well aware of the dynamic Bartels describes. Obama will try to stimulate the economy to give himself an economic boost at the proper time to help him get re-elected. Republicans will try to thwart any such effort.

“I think that does cause problems in governing,” he says, “but I wouldn’t say in a general sense that it means democracy doesn’t work. Because if you say that, then you have to ask, ‘In comparison to what?’”

For more research stories, visit Vanderbilt’s online research news channel, Research News @ Vanderbilt.


© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: JOHN RUSSELL | Illustrations: EDEL RODRIGUEZ/THEISPOT.COM

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