Systematically Biased Beliefs About Political Influence: A Quick Survey of the Literature
By Bryan Caplan
From Caplan-Crampton-Grove-Somin’s new working paper:
Earlier researchers have already identified some systematic biases that undermine retrospective voting. Voters myopically reward and punish politicians for recent economic performance. (Bartels 2010; Achen and Bartels 2008, 2004a) Partisanship heavily distorts voters’ attributional judgments. (Marsh and Tilley 2009; Rudolph 2006, 2003a, 2003b; Bartels 2002) Supporters of incumbent parties are eager to credit the government for good outcomes and reluctant to blame it for bad outcomes, opponents of incumbent parties do the opposite – and both sides can’t be right. Voters also reward and punish politicians for outcomes that are clearly irrelevant or beyond their control, such as local football victories, world oil prices, and the state of the world economy. (Wolfers 2011; Healy, Malhotra, and Mo 2010; Leigh 2009; Achen and Bartels 2004b) Arceneaux and Stein (2006) report that many voters incorrectly blamed the incumbent mayor of the city of Houston for the county government’s flood policy. Iyengar (1989: 878) finds important framing effects: “agents of causal responsibility are viewed negatively while agents of treatment responsibility are viewed positively.” Healy and Malhotra (2009) show that voters reward politicians for disaster relief spending, but not disaster prevention spending, even though prevention is demonstrably more cost-effective. Marsh and Tilley (2009), Tilley, Garry, and Bold (2008), Arceneaux and Stein (2006), Rudolph (2003a), and Gomez and Wilson (2001) find systematic effects of education and/or political sophistication on attributional judgments.
But be forewarned:
Our results do not imply, of course, that the American public’s beliefs about political influence are biased in every conceivable respect. Voters’ attributional judgments often respond in rational ways to divided government (Rudolph 2003a; Whitten and Palmer 1999; Lewis-Beck 1997; Leyden and Borrelli 1995; Alesina and Rosenthal 1995; Powell and Whitten 1993) and federalism (Arceneaux 2006; Anderson 2006; Cutler 2004 Stein 1990). Nevertheless, the American public’s beliefs about political influence are biased in some important respects, raising serious questions about the ability of retrospective voting to circumvent other slippages in the democratic process.
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