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Noisy Retrospection: The Effect of Party Control on Policy Outcomes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 November 2019

Brigham Young University
University of Virginia


Retrospective voting is vital for democracy. But, are the objective performance metrics widely thought to be relevant for retrospection—such as the performance of the economy, criminal justice system, and schools, to name a few—valid criteria for evaluating government performance? That is, do political coalitions actually have the power to influence the performance metrics used for retrospection on the timeline introduced by elections? Using difference-in-difference and regression discontinuity techniques, we find that US states governed by Democrats and those by Republicans perform equally well on economic, education, crime, family, social, environmental, and health outcomes on the timeline introduced by elections (2–4 years downstream). Our results suggest that voters may struggle to truly hold government coalitions accountable, as objective performance metrics appear to be largely out of the immediate control of political coalitions.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2019 

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We wish to thank Scott Ashworth, Michael Barber, Adam Bonica, Adam Brown, Dan Butler, Daniel Carpenter, Alexander Coppock, Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, Albert Fang, Justin Fox, Shana Gadarian, Matt Grossman, Andrew Hall, Hans Hassell, Greg Huber, Vladimir Kogan, Stéphane Lavertu, Matthew Lebo, Cecilia Mo, Jeremy Pope, Jerome Schafer, Keith Schnakenberg, and Christopher Warshaw for their invaluable feedback; Matt Grossman, Marty Jordan, James J. Feigenbaum, Alexander Fouirnaies, and Andrew B. Hall for sharing data; participants in panels and workshops at Brigham Young University, Stanford University, the 2016 American Political Science Association meeting, the 2016 Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management meeting, the 2017 Midwest Political Science Association meeting, and the 2018 State Politics and Policy Conference; and four anonymous reviewers for their contributions to this project. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:


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