Monday, September 15, 2008

What Happened to Sociotropic Voting?

I remember a funny term in graduate school called "sociotropic voting."

The notion is that voters look at the economy's performance and evaluate their electoral choices with the goal of maximizing "social welfare" in mind. With the current economic turbulence - housing and the subprime collapse, the Wall Street financial crisis, sustained high gas prices and inflation at the grocery store checkout line, etc. - it seems we'd be seeing more discussion along the lines of public interest voting, and thus signs of political rewards for the party out of power.

If one clicks on the
Huffington Post, as I have the last few days, the website has adopted the old newspaper rack headline strategy of crisis. Clicking right now finds the blaring topic headline, "BLACK MONDAY." I checked over there last night to find Huffington Post trumpeting the recent Alan Greenspan quote, "ONCE IN A CENTURY ECONOMIC CRISIS."

As bad as things are, the feeling on the street is nowhere near that proportion. I'm seeing less "bank owned" for sale signs as I was at the beginning of the year, and even as national unemployment numbers edge up, the Southern California economy appears robust, with firms hiring and the morning crush on Los Angeles freeways signaling as big a traffic commute as ever (impressionist data to be sure, but nevertheless good indicators of a vigorous local marketplace).

Indeed, as tough as the economy seems objectively, individual concerns about market instability have been declining, as seen in a recent Gallup report, "
Pessimism Declines Despite Job Woes."

So, where's the attention to sociotropic voting?

The Monkey Cage has a research update, "A Different Take on Sociotropic and Pocketbook Voting":

Dozens – hundreds? – of research studies have explored one particular aspect of the economic basis of electoral behavior: the issue of whether “pocketbook” considerations (one’s personal financial situation) or “sociotropic” ones (one’s assessment of the state of the broader economy) are more important. The standard modus operandi in such research is to pit these two possibilities against one another in horse-race fashion and determining which comes out ahead. Or, in more comprehensive treatments, the two possibilities might be included additively in models of voting, to try to assess the overall impact of economic conditions on voting behavior.

Mitchell Killian, Ryan Schoen, and Aaron Dusso (political science graduate students at, ahem, George Washington University) have a somewhat different take on this issue. In a piece that will appear in an upcoming issue of Political Behavior, they examine the possibility that “pocketbook and sociotropic economic assessments are not independent and alternative sources of voter turnout, but operate in tandem to shape electoral behavior.”
A draft of the research is here (in pdf).

The paper's blending macro- and micro-economic concerns among voters, synthesizing two strands of reseach. The dependent variable is "likelihood of voting," rather than "voting for policies that maximize 'social welfare,'" which is considered
the main hypothesis in sociotropic models.

Still, the Killian, Schoen, and Dusso paper finds that:

The perception that one is falling behind economically relative to the rest of society spurs those individuals to vote more than individuals who perceive that they have been reaping relative economic gains.
Taking this logic further, perhaps current polling data predicting a large turnout in November's election can be correlated to feelings of "not keeping up with the Jones" among American voters; and if so, from a sociotropic perspective, we might expect the party out of power to benefit.

In other words, the Democrats should be pulling away in public opinion polling.

But they're not, at either the
presidential or generic congressional level.

So, what happened to sociotropic voting?

Who knows?

The Politico reports that the "banking meltdown" is going to wallop the
presidential campaigns, but frankly, the Democrats are facing an uphill battle in making the case for "Bush's third term."

Maybe Barack Obama needs to
replace Joseph Biden with Hillary Clinton as running mate (so the Democrats can capture more of those "bitter" voters).

But I'll leave it the political science voting experts to sort it all out.