BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In his recent book "Unequal Democracy," noted
Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels reaches the
controversial conclusion that Democratic presidents have generally
done a better job in handling the economy.
According to Bartels, economic growth has been greater,
unemployment has been lower and income-inequality has been slightly
reduced under Democratic presidents. As he sees it, Democrats have
had a better record across the board.
But James Campbell, a University at Buffalo professor of
political science and widely published author on American politics,
says Bartels is incorrect.
In "A Refutation of 'Unequal Democracy,'" a paper he recently
presented at the Northeastern Political Science Meeting, Campbell
concludes, after reexamining the economic data, that there have
been no significant differences in the economic records of the two
presidential parties over the past 60 years.
Both Campbell and Bartels obtained the data for their studies
from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Labor
Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau.
"The problem with Bartels' analysis of the economic records of
the two parties," says Campbell, "is that it does not take into
account the state of the economy inherited by the new president.
Bartels' finding of a partisan difference depends entirely on the
way in which he treats transition periods from one party to the
"In reviewing the economic history of the past six decades,"
Campbell says, "I found that whenever the country was moving from a
Democratic to a Republican presidency, the economy was weak and
often slipping into recession."
"Truman left Eisenhower, Johnson left Nixon and Carter left
Reagan with economies that were going into recession as they left
office and, while the economy was not technically in recession when
Bill Clinton turned the keys to the White House over to George W.
Bush," Campbell says, "the dot-com bubble was bursting and the
economy was on the brink of a recession.
"In blaming Republican presidents for the economic problems
inherited from the previous Democratic presidents, Bartels has
unfortunately added insult to injury."
Based on his reading of the historical economic data, Campbell
finds that, "From 1948 to 2005, Republican presidents were quite
consistently left with an economic mess by their Democratic
predecessor. This had not been the case for incoming Democratic
presidents -- until now.
"While there can and should be much debate over what caused the
current recession, it obviously started 'on the watch' of
Republican President Bush," Campbell says.
"However, unlike the earlier transition recessions, the current
recession began early enough that it should not consume President
Obama's term, unless his policies end up stalling the economic
"The key difference between Bartels' analysis and mine," he
says, "is that I examined the effects of the lagged quarterly
change in the economy on the following year's economy. Once you
take into account the impact of the two quarters leading into a
year, the party differences that Bartels found in economic growth,
unemployment and income-inequality wash out."
Campbell notes that the two political parties are different in
many significant ways, "and may even have important long-term
economic differences between them, but they do not differ with
respect to the performances of the economy during their
"Republican presidents were no more responsible for the economic
downturns early in their terms," he says, "than Franklin Roosevelt
was responsible for the Depression in the early '30s or than Barack
Obama was responsible for the recession in the early quarters of
Campbell is chair of the Department of Political Science at UB.
He also serves as the president of Pi Sigma Alpha, the National
Political Science Honor Society, and has served on the editorial
boards of six political science journals and on the executive
councils of seven political science organizations.
He has published more than 60 book chapters and articles in
major political science journals. His most recent book is the
second edition of "The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential
Campaigns and the National Vote" (Texas A&M University Press,
2008). He is also the author of "Cheap Seats: The Democratic
Party's Advantage in U.S. House Elections" and "The Presidential
Pulse of Congressional Elections."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.