October 28, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The disappearing link between voting and the economy
People aren’t pushed into partisan camps by the economy. Rather, people interpret the economy through a partisan lens.
In the last weeks before the 2022 midterms, Democrats have been struggling. A major Times poll indicated that 44 percent of voters said that economic concerns were most important for them in the election, up from 36 percent in July.
That’s significant because voters who put economics first favored Republicans by more than two to one.
Polls like this make it sound like the American people are angry about continuing high inflation and have deprioritized issues like abortion rights and voting rights. As a result, they have turned to Republicans.
That may be part of what is happening. But it also seems likely that voters are turning to Republicans, and that they have therefore started referencing Republican talking points about the economy.
This seems counterintuitive; economic health has a direct material effect on people. You’d expect that to drive vote choice.
But a good deal of research suggests that the opposite is the case. People aren’t pushed into partisan camps by the economy. Rather, people interpret the economy through a partisan lens.
In 2016, for example, the Consumer Confidence Index for Republicans, based on a weighted value for a series of key questions, was around 77. The Consumer Confidence Index for Democrats was around 105.
Immediately after the election when Republican candidate Donald Trump was victorious, though, those numbers flipped. Republican CCI jumped to 120; Democratic CCI plummeted below 80.
There was a similar dynamic after the 2020 election. Democrats shortly before the election had a CCI of around 76. The Republican CCI was close to 100. After the election of Democrat Joe Biden, Democratic CCI skyrocketed to close to 105, while Republican CCI cratered to under 70.
And again, before the 2016 election, less than 25 percent of Republicans said the economy was getting better; more than 75 percent said it was getting worse.
As soon as the election happened, though, those numbers changed dramatically. Suddenly almost 50 percent of Republicans thought the economy was getting better, while a slightly smaller number than that said it was getting worse.
Obviously, the economy didn’t change that much in the week after the election. What changed were partisan signals. When Trump was in control, Republicans told pollsters the economy was better, while Democrats told pollsters the economy was worse.
The fact that partisanship drives economic polling, rather than the economy driving partisanship, is well known now. And it’s even more salient as partisanship has increased and strengthened over the last years. It should be taken into account in media reporting and narratives.
But it rarely is. For example, in 2016, the media was obsessed with the idea that Trump voters were being driven by economic anxiety.
But numerous retrospective studies showed that there was little correlation between economic distress and support for Trump.
Trump voters chose Trump for partisan reasons—because he was a Republican, because he embodied their enthusiasm for white, male, Christian identity politics.
But Republican talking points focused on economic anxiety. So voters signaled their partisanship to pollsters by saying the economy was doing poorly.
Despite the evidence that media narratives were wrong or confused in 2016, you can see the same thing happening again in 2022. The media looks at polls saying that voters are concerned about inflation and the economy, and says that poor economic performance is bad for Democrats.
Inflation does materially affect people, and disruptions from Covid and the war in Ukraine are real. There is plenty of reason to be concerned about the economy at a time of global uncertainty and conflict.
But those concerns don’t necessarily translate into voting choices.
For instance, in the New York Times article on their own poll, the reporter interviews Robin Ackerman, a 37-year-old mortgage loan officer who said she was a Democrat.
Ackerman supports abortion rights. But she said, “I’m shifting more towards Republican because I feel like they’re more geared towards business.”
The vague gesture towards “business” doesn’t really sound like someone who is worried about the economy and is going to vote Republican. It sounds like someone who has decided to vote for the GOP, and is therefore referencing partisan GOP pro-business talking points to justify or rationalize that choice.
So, if the economy isn’t necessarily driving voter choice, what is?
The probable answer is simply that the incumbent party has a large structural disadvantage in midterm elections. According to FiveThirtyEight, the president’s party has performed about 7.4 points worse in the midterm elections than in the previous presidential election.
Based on those numbers you’d expect Democrats to lose the House (which they won by 3 in 2020). They might be able to hold the Senate this year because of the very poor quality of Republican candidates.
Why do voters turn on the incumbent president? Political scientists are unsure, but the best explanation is probably “balancing.”
Voters, perhaps pushed by a press obsessed with both sides messaging, tend to worry that a president has gone too far to the left or the right. They vote for the out party to get what they see as more moderate outcomes.
The Dobbs decision, one of the most sweeping right-wing policy victories of the last twenty years at least, has somewhat undermined the narrative that the country is moving too far left. So has the continued prominence of Donald Trump in the news, a constant reminder of what the Republicans would do if in power.
These factors have helped keep Democrats more competitive in midterm polls than would be expected. Republicans are still only about .5 points ahead on the generic congressional ballot according to 538’s poll aggregator, rather than the 4 point lead you’d expect based on previous midterms.
Still, the swing towards the out party as the midterm approaches is powerful. The Democrats are fighting against long-term structural factors which have shaped elections for decades.
Those factors are pushing voters towards Republicans—and when voters move towards Republicans, they tend to say they’re concerned about the economy, because that’s what Republican partisan leaders are emphasizing.
But it’s not the economy driving the partisanship. It’s partisanship driving economic concerns.
Which means that the problem isn’t really that Democrats are out of touch on the economy, or aren’t appealing to working class voters. The problem is that many voters continue to behave as they have in the past, despite the GOP’s escalating extremism and escalating attack on democracy.
This dynamic is very dangerous for our democracy, and it’s difficult to know how to address it. But if we are ever going to do so, it’s important to understand that economic anxiety is not what’s driving the backlash.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.