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A Different Take on Sociotropic and Pocketbook Voting

- April 21, 2008


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.” Their basic argument is as follows:

bq. For any individual, the “Joneses” – the reference point – are represented by images of how the nation’s economy has been performing. If the economy is thought to have been doing well, then the “Joneses” must collectively be doing well; if the economy is seen as lagging, then “the Joneses” are laggards. Images of national economic performance, then, give citizens a rough gauge with which to access their own financial situation, the key question being whether they are getting ahead, keeping up, or falling behind.

bq. …The key to our hypothesis is not that personal economic considerations matter more than collective ones, or vice versa, but that the two sets of considerations matter in combination with one another. Therefore, we expect those who perceive that their personal financial situation has been outpaced by the performance of the national economy – that is, those who perceive that they have not kept up with the Joneses – be to be more likely to vote than others.

Tested against data from an array of American National Election Studies, this interpretation stands up reasonably well. I think this paper could lead many electoral behavior specialists to rethink their treatments of a very high-profile issue in their field.

(This paper is forthcoming in Political Behavior. For a slightly earlier version of it, click HERE.)