Democracy’s success requires strong and accountable institutions of governance.  Yet when people face political failures they demand new people, not new institutions. This is not the only irrational behavior at the voting booth, sticking to one’s ideology is another.

In a recent article The Economists explains…

Irrationality at the voting booth

The tendency to blame people’s actions on character rather than circumstance is mostly bad for democracy.

There is no simple objective measure of a politician’s competence. But voters’ perception of competency appears to often be determined by ideology.

For example 70% of Democratic voters thought Barack Obama would go down in history as an outstanding or above average president at the end of his term compared to 15% of Republicans.

Even while objective outcomes do play a role in determining voters’ attitudes, voters often judge politicians on results that are beyond their control.

Justin Wolfers, an economist, found that voters in oil-producing states were more likely to re-elect incumbent governors during oil price rises, and vote them out of office when the oil price drops—despite the fact that governors have effectively no power over the global price of a barrel of crude.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of Princeton and Vanderbelt similarly suggest a strong pattern of voters penalising politicians in the aftermath of floods, droughts and even shark attacks. They argue that in the presidential election of 2000 as many as 2.8m voted against Al Gore (the “incumbent” candidate in that he was a vice-president campaigning to replace his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton) because their states had been too wet or too dry that year.

There is one potential upside to the attribution error of thinking politicians are responsible for outcomes that are (largely) out of their control. Elected officials may work harder than they would do otherwise to improve such outcomes, because they know they will be judged on them. But most of the effects Mr Glaeser and his colleagues discuss are negative.

In particular, they suggest that voters who think they can easily detect the quality of politicians respond to political failures “by demanding new people, not new institutions”—throwing the bums out, not changing the incentives facing elected leaders.

Voters are less interested in mechanisms to provide better guidance on who is a good politician or protect against bad politicians who are elected regardless: institutions like a free press or oversight mechanisms to fight corruption.

Of course, no voting result can be reduced to a single set of factors, let alone one potential psychological quirk amongst the electorate. But Mr Glaeser and colleagues argue that the attribution error may lead to voters electing the lucky over the competent and selecting politicians on the grounds that they are strong in areas where elected officials actually have little control. Not least, the paper suggests, voters favour presidential candidates who claim that they can manage the economy “despite the fact that presidential control over war and diplomacy is arguably far greater than presidential control over GDP growth”.


Excerpts of an article first published on The Economist on 27 October 2017.