"Data from the American National Election Studies demonstrate that those facing economic adversity are more likely to vote when they blame the government for economic outcomes," said Kevin Arceneaux, a political science research assistant at Rice, whose findings were published in Political Research Quarterly.
"One of the oldest clichés in politics is that what matters most is turnout - who gets out to vote on election day," he said. The belief was that people with money woes are more worried about their finances than about casting a ballot, so on election day they're busy trying to make money and won't take time to go to the polls. Although such people are more likely to prefer the political party who is not in office when the economy is bad, their preference is not registered because they don't vote. After reading these conclusions in a 1994 paper by political scientist Ben Radcliff, Arceneaux thought the argument was interesting, "but it didn't square with how I thought things worked," he said.
Arceneaux reviewed five studies based on election results between 1990 and 1998. He found that when people in economic distress think the government caused the problems with the economy, not only are they more likely to vote, they are more likely to vote against the incumbent party.
"When the economy goes in the dumps, the White House needs to watch out, because the people who are hurting for money will express their dissatisfaction with the government at the ballot box," Arceneaux said.
He cited the 1992 election as an example: Bill Clinton did a good job of staying on message - "It's the economy, Stupid" - and used the high misery index (unemployment plus inflation) to convince the majority of voters that the nation's economic problems were George Bush Sr.'s fault.
Arceneaux acknowledged that Radcliff was right in one respect: Those who face economic hardship but don't blame the government are, in fact, less likely to vote. But since they don't blame the government, they are not more or less likely to vote against the incumbent.
The implications of Arceneaux's findings are that when the economy is bad, the opposition party has to do whatever it can to convince voters that the current administration is at fault. "In 2004, if the economy is still like it is now, the Democrats would do well to say that George W. Bush is responsible," Arceneaux said. "And Bush needs to do everything possible to blame someone else for the poor economy, such as terrorists, the war or the business cycle."
Arceneaux said his findings are not too surprising. "Sometimes the role of science is to demonstrate the obvious."
Having just received a Ph.D. in political science from Rice, Arceneaux is now pursuing a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University, where he will be part of a research team that uses field experiments to measure the impact of different types of messages and media on voter turnout, as well as other forms of political behavior.