Campaigning for the economic vote : the political impact of economic rhetoric
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Economic voting--the effect of national economic circumstances on vote preferences--is often seen as the closest thing to a law that exists in the social sciences. Why, then, do incumbents frequently win amidst economic downturns and challengers in economic boom times? I argue that the conventional wisdom fails because it leaves no room for political leadership. Rejecting the notion that candidates have little influence over when and to what extent economic voting occurs, I develop a campaign-centered theory that highlights candidates' power to alter the strength of the economic vote strategically. Specifically, I draw on cognitive-psychological research on priming to argue that candidates' decisions to emphasize or deemphasize economic issues in campaign messages--decisions which I argue are not endogenous to economic context--systematically condition voters' willingness to hold governments accountable for past economic performance. I test my argument against the conventional economic voting model by evaluating the impact of televised campaign ads in national elections in five countries. Combining quantitative analysis of public opinion data with original content analysis of both televised ads and newspaper stories, I show that the effect of economic campaign messages on the economic vote is profound. In some cases, the effect is electorally decisive. In elections in which candidates focus on non-economic issues, however, evaluations of the nation's economic performance have little influence on vote preferences. Only when candidates focus squarely on economic issues do voters come to evaluate the candidates based on economic considerations. Notably, I show that this activating effect is driven by exposure to economic campaign ads in particular, not the campaign in general as conventional theory predicts. Electoral campaigns, therefore, can overcome structural conditions thought to hamstring electoral candidates. More generally, I show that, by reevaluating the psychology of economic voting in light of extensive research on priming, we can improve our understanding of election outcomes in both developed and developing democracies that conventional models treat as anomalous.