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Prospect Theory, Loss Aversion, and Political Behavior  

Francesco Passarelli and Alessandro Del Ponte

Prospect theory introduces several anomalies in the behavior of rational agents, including loss aversion, the reflection effect, probability weighting, and the certainty effect. Loss aversion occurs relative to the current state of the world, called reference point. Being loss averse causes people to prefer the current state of affairs above and beyond the expected utility that comes from a risky political change, engendering a status quo bias. Yet, bias is asymmetric due to the reflection effect: people are too tepid toward advantageous platforms or candidates, whereas they are not critical enough of detrimental policies or bad politicians. Both rich and poor citizens take similar stances on nonpartisan issues (such as national defense): this happens because they evaluate uncertain policy changes relative to a reference point. Citizens welcome radical political platforms with greater enthusiasm than incremental proposals. Generally, under prospect theory societal conflict is smoother than under expected utility theory. Older societies are more prone to preserving the status quo than younger ones. These properties also affect the choice of voting rules. Loss aversion induces people to prefer more prudent voting rules and preserve the status quo. Hence, agents favor higher majority thresholds or even unanimity over simple majority in constitutional choice. The status quo bias supports the persistence of policy cycles, with prolonged drifts in one direction before a trend reversal. In sum, loss aversion and other anomalies pinpointed by prospect theory offer insightful predictions with which to study political phenomena.

Article

The Economic Voter Decides  

Mary Stegmaier, Michael S. Lewis-Beck, and Lincoln Brown

In democracies, we elect our political leaders by choosing among a rival set of candidates or parties. What makes us pick one over all the others? Do we carefully weigh the platforms of all the candidates and then select the one closest to our personal desires? Or, do we select the candidate our friends and neighbors recommend? Perhaps, even, to save time, do we just vote for the same party we did last time? All of these are choice strategies, and there are many more. Here we focus on a well-known explanation of how voters decide, commonly called the Michigan Model, so named for the university where it was developed, in a path-breaking scholarly volume—The American Voter. The authors systematically gathered data, via scientific survey research, on individual voters in American presidential elections, measuring different traits, perceptions, and attitudes that they hypothesized might influence vote choice. They arranged these different factors, or variables, into long-term forces and short-term forces that acted on the voter, and could be arrayed as if they were spread along a funnel of causality: from more remote, fixed variables, such as social class or party identification, to more proximate, fluid variables, such as issue preferences and candidate attributes. All these variables generally mattered, but those that concern us here deal with issues, in particular economic issues. How do voter evaluations of the economy help the voter decide what party to favor? Is it the national economy or the pocketbook that counts? How important are economic issues compared to other issues? What conditions make economic considerations more (or less) impactful? Does economic voting operate differently in different countries? These and other questions are addressed herein, with special attention to three leading democracies where economic voting has been heavily studied—the United States, Britain, and Germany. As demonstrated, economic considerations are pervasive and powerful elements in the democratic voter’s calculus.

Article

Dead Ends and New Paths in the Study of Economic Voting  

Timothy Hellwig and Dani M. Marinova

Connections between the economy and vote are commonly invoked to evaluate political accountability in representative democracies. A principal motivation for studying economic voting lies in its value as a gauge of whether democracy works or not. In recent years, however, researchers have cast doubt on the assertion that economic conditions influence voters’ evaluations of political incumbents. Criticisms hail from several directions. Some, adopting a cross-national perspective, cite the instability problem as evidence against economic voting’s existence. That is, variance in the economy-vote relationship across different national contexts is sufficiently large so as to undermine claims that the economy registers a systematic effect. Other critics charge that the electorate lacks sufficient knowledge to incorporate economic conditions in their decisions at the polls. Still others remind us not to mistake correlation for causation. They charge that the voters’ perceptions of how well the economy is performing are viewed through a pre-existing partisan lens. All told, these and other reservations cast doubt on the use of economic voting as a means to evaluate accountability and, in turn, democratic performance. These charges against the fidelity of economic voting require further examination. Rather than join a growing chorus of observers concluding that the economic vote is a chimera, this piece posits that recent critiques should push us to reconceive rather than discredit economic voting. Recent work in psychology and behavioral economics provides a basis for constructive and meaningful reinterpretations of the economy’s influence on voter decisions. These new directions include an emphasis on framing effects—be it on the part of strategic elites or from the media, an emphasis on what voters know about the economy, and a wider consideration of just which “economy” matters to which set of voters. While many in number, each of these new directions advance understanding by embodying deeper conceptions of voters and elected officials.

Article

Strategic Voting Versus Sincere Voting  

Damien Bol and Tom Verthé

People do not always vote for the party that they like the most. Sometimes, they choose to vote for another one because they want to maximize their influence on the outcome of the election. This behavior driven by strategic considerations is often labeled as “strategic voting.” It is opposed to “sincere voting,” which refers to the act of voting for one’s favorite party. Strategic voting can take different forms. It can consist in deserting a small party for a bigger one that has more chances of forming the government, or to the contrary, deserting a big party for a smaller one in order to send a signal to the political class. More importantly the strategies employed by voters differ across electoral systems. The presence of frequent government coalitions in proportional representation systems gives different opportunities, or ways, for people to influence the electoral outcome with their vote. In total, the literature identifies four main forms of strategic voting. Some of them are specific to some electoral systems; others apply to all.

Article

Populist Politics in Africa  

Danielle Resnick

Although widely used in reference to the Americas and Europe, the concept of populism has been less frequently applied to political dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa. Populism is variously viewed as a political strategy aimed at fostering direct links between a leader and the masses, an ideational concept that relies on discourses that conjure a corrupt elite and the pure people, and a set of socio-cultural performances characterized by a leader’s charisma, theatrics, and transgression of accepted norms. A cumulative approach that combines all three perspectives allows for identifying episodes of populism in Africa. These include historical cases of populist regimes in the 1980s as well as more contemporary examples of party leaders in the region’s democracies who use populism in their electoral campaigns to mobilize subaltern groups, especially those living in urban areas. As found in other regions of the world, those African leaders who have ascended to the presidency on the back of populism typically exert anti-democratic practices once in office. This reaffirms that populism can allow for greater representation of the poor and marginalized in the electoral process, but that populists’ celebration of popular will and supposedly unmediated ties to the people become convenient justifications for bypassing established institutions and undermining the rule of law.