Skip to main content

Benchmarking across Borders: Electoral Accountability and the Necessity of Comparison


When the economy in a single country contracts, voters often punish the government. When many economies contract, voters turn against their governments much less frequently. This suggests that the international context matters for the domestic vote, yet most research on electoral accountability assumes that voters treat their national economies as autarkic. We decompose two key economic aggregates—growth in real gross domestic product and unemployment—into their international and domestic components and demonstrate that voters hold incumbents more electorally accountable for the domestic than for the international component of growth. Voters in a wide variety of democracies benchmark national economic growth against that abroad, punishing (rewarding) incumbents for national outcomes that underperform (outperform) an international comparison. Tests suggest that this effect arises not from highly informed voters making direct comparisons but from “pre-benchmarking” by the media when reporting on the economy. The effect of benchmarked growth exceeds that of aggregate national growth by up to a factor of two and outstrips the international component of growth by an even larger margin, implying that previous research may have underestimated the strength of the economy on the vote.

Corresponding author
Mark Andreas Kayser is Professor of Applied Methods and Comparative Politics, Hertie School of Governance, Friedrichstraße 180, 10117 Berlin, Germany (
Michael Peress is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Rochester, Harkness Hall 326, Rochester, NY 14627 (
Hide All
Achen Christopher H., and Bartels Larry M.. 2002. “Blind Retrospection: Electoral Responses to Droughts, Flu, and Shark Attacks.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston.
Allers Maarten A., and Elhorst . 2005. “Tax Mimicking and Yardstick Competition among Local Governments in the Netherlands.” International Tax and Public Finance 12 (4): 493513.
Anderson Christopher J. 2007. “The End of Economic Voting? Contingency Dilemmas and the Limits of Democratic Accountability.” Annual Review of Political Science 10 (1): 271–96.
Ansolabehere Stephen, Meredith Marc, and Snowberg Erik. 2008. “Sociotropic Voting and the Media.” American National Electron Study Pilot Study Reports.
Besley Timothy, and Case Anne. 1995. “Incumbent Behavior: Vote-seeking, Tax-setting, and Yardstick Competition.” American Economic Review 85 (1): 2545.
Besley Timothy, and Kudamatsu Masayuki. 2006. “Health and Democracy.” American Economic Review 96 (2): 313–18.
Blaydes Lisa, and Kayser Mark A.. 2011. “Counting Calories: Democracy and Distribution in the Developing World.” International Studies Quarterly 55 (4): 887908.
Bosch Núria, and Solé-Ollé Albert. 2007. “Yardstick Competition and the Political Costs of Raising Taxes: An Empirical Analysis of Spanish Municipalities.” International Tax and Public Finance 14 (1): 7192.
Campbell Angus, Converse Philip E., Miller Warren E., and Stokes Donald E.. 1960. The American Voter: Unabridged Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Canes-Wrone Brandice, Brady David W., and Cogan John F.. 2002. “Out of Step, out of Office: Electoral Accountability and House Members’ Voting.” American Political Science Review 96 (1): 127–40.
Chappell Henry W., and Veiga Linda G.. 2000. “Economics and Elections in Western Europe: 1960–97.” Electoral Studies 19 (2/3): 183–97.
Cheibub Jose A., and Przeworski Adam. 1999. “Democracy, Elections, and Accountability for Economic Outcomes.” In Democracy, Accountability, and Representation, eds. Przeworski Adam, Stokes Susan C., and Manin Bernard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 222–50.
Clark Andrew E., Frijters Paul, and Shields Michael A.. 2008. “Relative Income, Happiness, and Utility: An Explanation for the Easterlin Paradox and Other Puzzles.” Journal of Economic Literature 46 (1): 95144.
Dalton Russell J., and Anderson Christopher J., eds. 2011. Citizens, Context, and Choice: How Context Shapes Citizens’ Electoral Choices. New York: Oxford University Press.
DiTella Rafael, and Robert MacCulloch . 2006. “Some Uses of Happiness Data in Economics.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 20 (1): 2546.
Dorussen Han, and Palmer Harvey D.. 2002. The Context of Economic Voting: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Drake Paul W. 1998. The International Causes of Democratization, 1974–1990. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Duch Ray M., Palmer Harvey D., and Anderson Christopher J.. 2000. “Heterogeneity in Perceptions of National Economic Conditions.” American Journal of Political Science 44 (4): 635–52.
Duch Raymond M., and Stevenson Randy. 2008. The Economic Vote: How Political and Economic Institutions Condition Election Results. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Duch Ray, and Stevenson Randy. 2010. “The Global Economy, Competency, and the Economic Vote.” Journal of Politics 72: 105–23.
Easterlin Richard A. 2003. “Explaining Happiness.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100 (19): 11176–83.
Ebeid Michael, and Rodden Jonathan. 2006. “Economic Geography and Economic Voting: Evidence from US States.” British Journal of Political Science 36: 527–47.
Elff Martin. 2009. “Social Divisions, Party Positions, and Electoral Behaviour.” Electoral Studies 28 (2): 297308.
Evans Geoffrey, and Anderson Robert. 2006. “The Political Conditioning of Economic Perceptions.” Journal of Politics 68 (1): 194207.
Ferejohn John. 1986. “Incumbent Performance and Electoral Control.” Public Choice 50 (1–3): 525.
Fiorina M. P. 1981. Retrospective Voting in American National Elections. New Haven, CT:Yale University Press.
Gasper John T., and Reeves Andrew. 2011. “Make It Rain? Retrospection and the Attentitive Electorate in the Context of Natural Disasters.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (2): 340–55.
Gelineau Francois, and Remmer Karen. 2006. “Political Decentralization and Electoral Accountability: The Argentine Experience, 1983–2001.” British Journal of Political Science 36 (1): 133–57.
Gomez Brad T., and Wilson J. Matthew. 2001. “Political Sophistication and Economic Voting in the American Electorate: A Theory of Heterogeneous Attribution.” American Journal of Political Science 45 (4): 899914.
Gomez Brad T., and Wilson J. Matthew. 2006. “Cognitive Heterogeneity and Economic Voting: A Comparative Analysis of Four Democratic Electorates.” American Journal of Political Science 50 (1): 127–45.
Grynaviski Jeffery, and Corrigan Bryce E.. 2006. “Specification Issues in Proximity Models of Candidate Evaluation (with Issue Importance).” Political Analysis 14: 393420.
Hansen Susan B. 1999. “Life Is Not Fair: Governors’ Job Performance Ratings and State Economies.” Political Research Quarterly 52 (1): 167–88.
Healy Andrew J., Malhotra Neil, and Mo Cecilia H.. 2010. “Irrelevant Events Affect Voters’ Evaluations of Government Performance.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (29): 12804–9.
Hellwig Timothy T. 2001. “Interdependence, Government Constraints, and Economic Voting.” Journal of Politics 63 (4): 1141–62.
Hellwig Timothy, and Samuels David. 2007. “Voting in Open Economies: The Electoral Consequences of Globalization.” Comparative Political Studies 40 (3): 283–306.
Hetherington Marc J. 1996. “The Media's Role in Forming Voters’ National Economic Evaluations in 1992.” American Journal of Political Science 40 (2): 372–95.
Hochschild Jennifer L. 2010. “If Democracies Need Informed Voters, How Can They Thrive While Expanding Enfranchisement?Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy 9: 111–23.
Katz Jonathan N., and King Gary. 1999. “A Statistical Model for Multiparty Electoral Data.” American Political Science Review 93 (1): 1532.
Kayser Mark A., and Peress Michael. 2012. “The Buck Stops over There? Benchmarking Elections in the Open Economy.” Working paper. Hertie School of Governance and University of Rochester.
Kayser Mark A., and Wlezien Christopher. 2011. “Performance Pressure: Patterns of Partisanship and the Economic Vote.” European Journal of Political Research 50 (3): 365–94.
Kinder Donald, and Kiewiet Roderick. 1981. “Sociotropic Politics: The American Case.” British Journal of Political Science 11: 129–41.
Lewis-Beck Michael S., and Stegmaier Mary A.. 2000. “Economic Determinants of Electoral Outcomes.” Annual Review of Political Science 3: 183219.
Lupia Arthur, and McCubbins Michael D.. 1998. The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Luttmer Erzo F. P. 2005. “Neighbors as Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-being.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 120 (3): 963–1002.
McFadden Daniel. 1974. “Conditional Logit Analysis of Qualitative Choice Behavior.” In Frontiers in Econometrics, ed. Zarembka P.. New York: Academic Press, 105–42.
Meguid Bonnie. 2008. Party Competition between Unequals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Min B. 2008. “Who Gets Public Goods? Democracy and the Provision of Electrification in the Developing World.” Presented at the University of California-Los Angeles Political Methods Workshop.
Montinola Gabriella R., and Jackman Robert W.. 2002. “Sources of Corruption: A Cross-country Study.” British Journal of Political Science 32 (1): 147–70.
Paldam Martin. 1991. “How Robust is the Vote Function? A Study of Seventeen Nations over Four Decades.” In Economics and Politics: The Calculus of Support, eds. Norpoth Helmut, Lewis-Beck Michael S., and Lafay Jean D.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 933.
Palmer Harvey D., and Whitten Guy D.. 1999. “The Electoral Impact of Unexpected Inflation and Economic Growth.” British Journal of Political Science 29 (4): 623–39.
Powell Bingham G. 2000. Elections as Instruments of Democracy: Majoritarian and Proportional Visions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Powell Bingham G., and Whitten Guy D.. 1993. “A Cross-national Analysis of Economic Voting: Taking Account of the Political Context.” American Journal of Political Science 37 (2): 391414.
Royed Terry J., Leyden Kevin M., and Borrelli Stephen. 2000. “Is ‘Clarity of Responsibility’ Important for Economic Voting? Revisiting Powell and Whitten's Hypothesis.” British Journal of Political Science 30: 669–98.
Samuels David, and Hellwig Timothy. 2010. “Elections and Accountability for the Economy: A Conceptual and Empirical Reassessment.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties 20 (4): 393419.
Soroka Stuart N. 2006. “Good News and Bad News: Asymmetric Responses to Economic Information.” Journal of Politics 68 (2): 372–85.
Stevenson Randy T. 1997. “How Parties Compete: Electoral Performance and Cabinet Participation in Parliamentary Democracies.” Ph.D. diss. University of Rochester.
Tomz Michael, Tucker Joshua A., and Wittenberg Jason. 2002. “An Easy and Accurate Regression Model for Multiparty Electoral Data.” Political Analysis 10 (1): 6683.
Tucker Joshua A. 2006. Regional Economic Voting: Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, 1990–1999. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Urquizu-Sancho Ignacio. 2011. “Coalition Governments and Electoral Behavior: Who Is Accountable? In Political Economy of Institutions, Democracy and Voting, eds. Schofield Norman and Caballero Gonzalo. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 185213.
van der Brug Wouter, Eijk Cees van der, and Franklin Mark N.. 2007. The Economy and the Vote: Economic Conditions and Elections in Fifteen Countries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vermeir Jan, and Heyndels Bruno. 2006. “Tax Policy and Yardstick Voting in Flemish Municipal Elections.” Applied Economics 38 (19): 2285–98.
Whitehead Laurence. 1996. “Three International Dimensions of Democratization.” In The International Dimensions of Democratization: Europe and the Americas, ed. Laurence Whitehead. New York: Oxford University Press, 3–25.
Whitten Guy D., and Palmer Harvey D.. 1999. “Cross-National Analyses of Economic Voting.” Electoral Studies 18 (1): 4967.
Wlezien Christopher, Franklin Mark, and Twiggs Daniel. 1997. “Economic Perceptions and Vote Choice: Disentangling the Endogeneity.” Political Behavior 19 (1): 717.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary Materials

Kayser and Peress

 PDF (617 KB)
617 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 13
Total number of PDF views: 190 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 551 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.