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The Attribution of Credit and Blame to Governments and Its Impact on Vote Choice


This article examines how voters attribute credit and blame to governments for policy success and failure, and how this affects their party support. Using panel data from Britain between 1997 and 2001 and Ireland between 2002 and 2007 to model attribution, the interaction between partisanship and evaluation of performance is shown to be crucial. Partisanship resolves incongruities between party support and policy evaluation through selective attribution: favoured parties are not blamed for policy failures and less favoured ones are not credited with policy success. Furthermore, attributions caused defections from Labour over the 1997–2001 election cycle in Britain, and defections from the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition over the 2002–07 election cycle in Ireland. Using models of vote switching and controlling for partisanship to minimize endogeneity problems, it is shown that attributed evaluations affect vote intention much more than unattributed evaluations. This result holds across several policy areas and both political systems.

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1 Key V. O., The Responsible Electorate (New York: Vintage, 1966).

2 Nannestad Peter and Paldam Martin, ‘The VP Function: A Survey of the Literature on Vote and Popularity Functions after 25 Years’, Public Choice, 79 (1994), 213245; Alesina Alberto, Londregan John and Rosenthal Howard, ‘A Model of the Political Economy of the United States’, American Political Science Review, 87 (1993), 1233; Norpoth Helmut, ‘Presidents and the Prospective Voter’, Journal of Politics, 58 (1996), 776792; Lewis-Beck Michael S. and Paldam Martin, ‘Economic Voting: An Introduction’, Electoral Studies, 19 (2000), 113121; Lewis-Beck Michael S. and Stegmaier Mary, ‘Economic Determinants of Electoral Outcomes’, Annual Review of Political Science, 3 (2000), 183219; Nadeau Richard and Lewis-Beck Michael S., ‘National Economic Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections’, Journal of Politics, 63 (2001), 159181.

3 See, for example, Anderson Christopher J., Blaming the Government: Citizens and the Economy in Five European Democracies (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1995); and Anderson Christopher J., ‘The Dynamics of Public Support for Coalition Governments’, Comparative Political Studies, 28 (1995), 350383.

4 Bingham Powell G. and Whitten Guy D., ‘A Cross-National Analysis of Economic Voting: Taking Account of the Political Context’, American Journal of Political Science 37 (1993), 391414; and see also Whitten Guy D. and Palmer Harvey D., ‘Cross-National Analyses of Economic Voting’, Electoral Studies 18 (1999), 4967; Anderson Christopher J., ‘Economic Voting and Political Context: A Comparative Perspective’, Electoral Studies 19 (2000), 151170; Nadeau Richard, Niemi Richard G. and Yoshinaka Antoine, ‘A Cross-National Analysis of Economic Voting: Taking Account of the Political Context across Time and Nations’, Electoral Studies 21 (2002), 403423.

5 Duch Raymond M. and Stevenson Randy, ‘Context and the Economic Vote: A Multilevel Analysis’, Political Analysis 13 (2005), 387409.

6 Hellwig Timothy T., ‘Interdependence, Government Constraints, and Economic Voting’, Journal of Politics, 63 (2001), 11411162.

7 Anderson Christopher J., ‘Economic Voting and Multilevel Governance: A Comparative Individual-Level Analysis’, American Journal of Political Science, 50 (2006), 446460; Arceneaux Kevin, ‘The Federal Face of Voting: Are Elected Officials Held Accountable for the Functions Relevant to their Office?’, Political Psychology, 27 (2004), 731745.

8 Lewis-Beck Michael S., ‘Who’s the Chef? Economic Voting under a Dual Executive’, European Journal of Political Research, 31 (1997), 315326.

9 Leyden Kevin M., and Borelli Stephen A., ‘The Effect of State Economic Conditions on Gubernatorial Elections: Does Unified Government Make a Difference?’ Journal of Theoretical Politics, 12 (2000), 113124; Lowry Robert C., Alt James E. and Ferree Karen E., ‘Fiscal Policy Outcomes and Electoral Accountability in the American State’, American Political Science Review, 92 (1998), 759774.

10 Lewis-Beck Michael S., Economics and Elections: The Major Western Democracies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

11 Rudolph Thomas J. and Tobin Grant J., ‘An Attributional Model of Economic Voting: Evidence from the 2000 Presidential Election’, Political Research Quarterly, 55 (2002), 805823; Rudolph Thomas J., ‘Who's Responsible for the Economy? The Formation and Consequences of Responsibility Attributions’, American Journal of Political Science, 47 (2003), 698713.

12 Rudolph , ‘Who’s Responsible for the Economy?’; Sigelman Lee and Knight Kathleen, ‘Public Opinion and Presidential Responsibility for the Economy: Understanding Personalization’, Political Behavior, 7 (1985), 167191.

13 This partisanship effect appears to only operate for Democrats. Republicans who have positive economic perceptions are no less likely to credit the president than Republicans who have negative economic perceptions are to blame the president. However, experimental evidence seems to suggest that there are effects for both Democrats and Republicans: see Shields Todd G. and Goidel Robert K., ‘Taking Credit and Avoiding Blame: Good News, Spin Control, and Democratic Accountability’, Political Communication, 15 (1998), 99115.

14 Rudolph Thomas J., ‘Institutional Context and the Assignment of Political Responsibility’, Journal of Politics, 65 (2003), 190215.

15 Peffley Mark and Williams John T., ‘Attributing Presidential Responsibility for National Economic Problems’, American Politics Quarterly, 13 (1985), 393425; Tyler Tom R., ‘Personalization in Attributing Responsibility for National Problems to the President’, Political Behavior, 4 (1982), 379399.

16 Anderson Christopher J., ‘The Interaction of Structures and Voter Behavior’, in Russell Dalton and Hans Dieter Klingemann, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Political Behaviour (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 589609, at p. 600.

17 Cutler Fred, ‘Government Responsibility and Electoral Accountability in Federations’, Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 34 (2004), 1938. The questions used by Cutler were slightly different to the format that we have used, with the stress on which level of government is responsible rather than whether government is responsible at all. In consequence, Cutler found few respondents who did not blame/credit either level of government for policy outcomes, whereas below it will be seen that many people in Britain and Ireland do not blame/credit government at all.

18 Campbell Angus, Converse Philip, Miller Warren and Stokes Donald E., The American Voter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

19 See, for example, Duch Raymond, Palmer Harvey and Anderson Christopher J., ‘Heterogeneity in Perceptions of National Economic Conditions’, American Journal of Political Science, 44 (2000), 863881; Evans Geoffrey and Andersen Robert, ‘The Political Conditioning of Economic Perceptions: Evidence from the 1992–97 British Electoral Cycle’, Journal of Politics, 68 (2006), 194207; Tilley James, Garry John and Bold Tessa, ‘Perceptions and Reality: Economic Voting at the 2004 European Parliament Elections’, European Journal of Political Research 47 (2008), 665686.

20 Fiorina Morris P., ‘An Outline for a Model of Party Choice’, American Journal of Political Science 21 (1977), 601625; Fiorina Morris P., Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981).

21 Green Donald, Palmquist Bradley and Schickler Eric, Partisan Hearts and Minds: Political Parties and the Social Identities of Voters (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002).

22 ‘Institutional Context and the Assignment of Political Responsibility’.

23 Bartels Larry M., ‘Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions’, Political Behavior, 24 (2002), 117150.

24 For the British Election Panel Study 1997–2001, the baseline sample is the cross-sectional survey of the British Election Study immediately following the 1997 general election. This sample was selected to be representative of eligible voters in Britain, and initially had 3,615 respondents with a response rate of 62 per cent.

25 The Irish Election Study 2002–07 takes its baseline as the 2002 Irish election study, a post-election cross-sectional survey of 2,663 respondents with a response rate of 60 per cent. The study was funded initially as part of the National Development Plan under the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions. Funding for the 2007 wave of the study came from an infrastructural award from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. For more details of the survey, see

26 In Britain, most people had relatively negative views of changes across a wide range of issues in 1997 when reflecting on change since the previous 1992 election. For more details, see Heath Anthony, Jowell Roger and Curtice John, The Rise of New Labour: Party Policies and Voter Choices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). After the Labour election victory in 1997, people became somewhat more positive about changes in areas such as health, education and crime, although at most a third in all three cases thought things had actually improved, and to a lesser extent the general standard of living. There was more change over the electoral cycle in Ireland than in Britain, as Irish voters in 2002 were very positive about changes to the Irish economy since the previous election in 1997. Perceptions then became very negative after the 2002 election, with government cuts and falling rates of growth, but as economic growth picked up again, public perceptions accordingly became much more positive. For more details of 2002, see Marsh Michael, Sinnott Richard, Garry John and Kennedy Fiachra, The Irish Voter: The Nature of Electoral Competition in the Republic of Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), pp. 81108.

27 Lewis-Beck , Economics and Elections.

28 The British panel employs a standard measure of British partisanship, using the question: ‘Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as Conservative, Labour, Liberal or what?’ We count as partisans only those individuals who claimed a fairly strong or very strong identification with one of the parties. We do not include those who think of themselves as ‘a little closer to one of the parties than the other’, as we wish to restrict ourselves to ‘true’ partisans. Recent work by John Bartle looking at partisanship in Britain has argued that the traditional measure overestimates the number of partisans and so we use this slightly more restrictive operationalization. See his ‘Measuring Party Identification: An Exploratory Study with Focus Groups’, Electoral Studies, 22 (2003), 217–37, and his ‘The Measurement of Party Identification in Britain: Where Do We Stand Now?’ pp. 9–22, in Tonge Jonathan, Bennie Lynn, Denver David and Harrison Lisa, eds, British Elections and Parties Review, Vol. 11 (Frank Cass: London, 2001). In 1997, 57 per cent of the full sample are classified as partisans using this measure, with slightly over half considering themselves to have a Labour party identification (53 per cent), slightly under a third to be Conservative identifiers (30 per cent) and the rest having a Liberal Democrat or other identification (17 per cent). Partisanship in Ireland is measured by the traditional British/Irish Eurobarometer question, also employed by CSES: ‘Do you usually think of yourself as close to any political party? Which party is that?’ All those saying ‘Yes’ to the first question (around a quarter of all voters) are classed as partisans. A further quarter answered positively a follow-up question (‘Would you say you are a little closer to one party than the others?’), but those who did so were classified as non-partisans to maintain consistency with the approach taken with the British data.

29 We also modelled attributions using a lagged (by one year) measure of partisanship, as an alternative strategy of managing endogeneity problems using the panel data. Thus, attribution in 1999 would be predicted by partisanship in 1998. Broadly speaking, this gives similar results (both in terms of significance and magnitude of effects), but we think a constant measure of party identification over the short period of time of the panels is a truer reflection of the concept of a ‘fixed’ party identity.

30 ‘Who's Responsible for the Economy?’

31 Heath Anthony, Evans Geoffrey and Martin Jean, ‘The Measurement of Core Beliefs and Values: The Development of Balanced Socialist/Laissez Faire and Libertarian/Authoritarian Scales’, British Journal of Political Science, 24 (1994), 115158; Evans Geoffrey, Heath Anthony and Lalljee Mansur, ‘Measuring Left–Right and Libertarian–Authoritarian Values in the British Electorate, British Journal of Sociology, 47 (1996), 93112.

32 This follows work by Kennedy Fiachra and Sinnott Richard (‘Irish Social and Political Cleavages’, pp. 7893, in Garry John, Hardiman Niamh and Payne Diane, eds, Irish Social and Political Attitudes (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006)). They employ a principal components analysis of three 11-point scale questions: business and industry should be strictly regulated by the state/be entirely free from regulation by the state; public or semi-state companies/private enterprises are the best way to provide the services that people need; most of the business and industry should be owned by the state/privately owned. The resultant measure is then rescaled here as a −2 to +2 scale.

33 In Britain, these true/false questions concerned the number of MPs in the House of Commons, the maximum time between general elections, the type of electoral system used in Britain, the type of MP that sits on parliamentary committees, whether general and European elections were separate or not and, finally, whether candidates need to pay a deposit to stand in a general election. We have coded answers as either correct or incorrect, including ‘Don’t knows’ in the incorrect category in line with previous work using this scale in Britain: Bartle John, ‘Political Awareness and Heterogeneity in Models of Voting: Some Evidence from the British Election Surveys’, in Pattie Charles, Denver David, Fisher Justin and Ludlam Steve, eds, British Elections and Parties Review, Vol. 7 (London: Frank Cass, 1997), pp. 122; Bartle John, ‘Political Awareness, Opinion Constraint and the Stability of Ideological Positions’, Political Studies, 48 (2000), 467484. The Irish version of the scale comprises five closed-ended questions, each with four possible responses. Questions were asked about the names of the respective leaders of three of the political parties, the name of the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) and the name of Ireland’s EU commissioner. As in the British scale, ‘Don’t knows’ were coded as incorrect answers.

34 In Britain, this is a question that measures the attention respondents pay to the political news in their newspaper, and it is coded as follows: No newspaper regularly read (0); little attention paid (1); some attention paid (2); A lot of attention paid (3). For Ireland, we use a question asking: ‘Did you look at advertisements in newspapers on of the candidates or parties?’ No (0) or Yes (1).

35 Fixing these over the course of the panel is of course an assumption, just as is fixing partisanship. Nonetheless, when we run these models separately for each wave, we find no evidence that there are any systematic differences over time in how knowledge, ideology and so forth affect attributions.

36 Rudolph and Grant , ‘An Attributional Model of Economic Voting’.

37 One obvious difference between vote intention and vote choice is that almost all respondents are willing to give a vote intention, but almost half the sample did not actually vote in 2001. However, removing the 2001 wave from the British data makes little to no difference to any results that we present here. The Irish data on vote choice in the general election in 2002 are confined only to the respondents whose reported act of voting was not invalidated by a check of the voting records. There may also be a suspicion that the proximity of the panel wave to the next election alters the nature of the vote intention response, and hence we should expect some of the relationships that we report to depend on the timing of the panel wave within the election cycle. If we run our models separately for each panel wave, we do not find any systematic timing effects (that is being closer or further away from the election did not make any difference to coefficient sizes for any factor in any consistent manner).

38 Lagging partisanship by one year, rather than fixing it as constant over the panel, gives similar, albeit somewhat weaker, results to those presented here.

39 Lewis-Beck Michael S., ‘Does Economics Still Matter? Econometrics and the Vote’, Journal of Politic, 68 (2006), 208212, p. 211.

40 In a response to Price Simon and Sanders David (‘Economic Expectations and Voting Intentions in the UK, 1979–87 – A Pooled Cross-Section Approach’, Political Studies, 43 (1995), 451471), Kenneth Macdonald and Anthony Heath use cross-sectional data to show that controlling for recalled previous vote reduces the effect of economic perceptions on vote choice dramatically, and thus it seems sensible to include this as well as partisanship (‘Pooling Cross-Sections: A Comment’, Political Studies, 45 (1997), 928–941). Moreover, the problem that Price and Sanders identify, that recalled measures of previous vote choice are likely to be contaminated by current vote choice, is not an issue here because we are using panel data.

41 In both Britain and Ireland, the addition of attribution and the interaction terms makes for a substantial and statistically significant improvement in model fit as measured by the change in the –2 log likelihood. For Britain, the likelihood ratio test statistic is 95.9 on 8 degrees of freedom, which is clearly highly statistically significant. For Ireland, it is 107.9 on 4 degrees of freedom.

42 Thomassen Jacques, ‘Modernisation or Politics’, in Jacques Thomassen, ed., The European Voter: A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 256266.

43 Bartels , ‘Beyond the Running Tally’, p. 138.

* Trinity College Dublin, and Jesus College, Oxford, respectively (email: ). The authors thank Tessa Bold, Sara Hobolt, Kathleen Knight, David Sanders and three anonymous referees for their comments on an earlier version of this article. A replication dataset is available from the authors on request.

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British Journal of Political Science
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