Roosevelt and Retrospective Voting
By Bryan Caplan
I just finished V.O. Key’s 1966 classic, The Responsible Electorate. It’s a seminal work in the retrospective voting literature. Key tries to convince his fellow political scientists that democracy works well because the electorate rewards success and punishes failure. He’s quick to admit, of course, that many citizens (the “standpatters”) simply vote a party line. But “switchers” are more numerous than we realize, and ultimately run the show.
Key then considers an important objection: Isn’t it possible that switchers switch on the basis of personality rather than success? He admits that personality matters to a degree, but denies its importance. And to cement his case, he appeals to the experience of Franklin Roosevelt:
How do we cope with the assertion that the series of Democratic victories reflected the massive appeal of the personality of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and nothing more? Even the most cursory reflection destroys this type of explanation in its crude form. It becomes ridiculous immediately if one contemplates what the fate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have been had he from 1933 to 1936 stood for those policies which were urged upon the country by the reactionaries of the day… His position derived not so much from the kind of man he was as from the kinds of things for which, and against which, he fought.
Key’s passage is bizarre on several levels. The most glaring: Roosevelt is the best U.S. counter-example to the thesis that voters reward politicians for delivering prosperity and peace. FDR’s track record is bizarrely bleak: Nine years of uninterrupted depression, followed by four years of war that left half of Europe in the hands of Stalinist Russia – one of the two original aggressor nations. And the American voter loved him anyway!
Key’s defenders might object that he’s making a weaker point: That FDR’s supporters agreed with his policies. But if you’re willing to say that most Americans supported FDR’s policies despite their unbroken association with failure, why is it so hard to believe that most Americans would have supported FDR even if his policies had been markedly different? Indeed, it is easy to believe that FDR could have won election after election with reactionary policies – as long as he remembered to call his policies “progressive.”
What FDR really shows is that for voters, believing is seeing. Since people loved Roosevelt, they imagined that he gave his country thirteen golden years. And as V.O. Key himself reveals, even brilliant political scientists are not immune to such delusions.