BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A new study by researchers at the University at
Buffalo modifies the longstanding theory of "retrospective voting,"
which holds that in presidential elections voters happy with the
in-party's performance will support its candidate and when unhappy
are more likely to support the opposition party's candidate.
The study supports the theory of conditional retrospective
voting, which holds that in such elections, voters are more likely
to give consideration to national conditions when evaluating an
incumbent seeking re-election than when considering a successor
candidate from the incumbent's party.
The research, "The Theory of Conditional Retrospective Voting:
Does the Presidential Record Matter Less in Open-Seat Elections,"
is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Politics
(Cambridge University Press).
The authors include noted researcher James E. Campbell, PhD,
professor and chair of the UB Department of Political Science.
Click here to see a
video interview with Campbell about his findings.
The theory of retrospective voting holds that (as well-known
political commentator and public intellectual Walter Lippman wrote)
the essence of popular government is "to support the Ins when
things are going well (and) to support the Outs when they seem to
be going badly.…"
Campbell notes, however, that things are not quite as simple as
His study found that voters do not respond to a successor
candidate in the same way as they respond to an incumbent. Voters
unhappy with an incumbent do not "take it out" on a successor
candidate of the same party to the same degree as they would on the
incumbent he were running.
For example, in 2008 President George W. Bush would have been
treated more roughly by the voters than they treated Sen. John
McCain. McCain was in a tight race with Obama until the Wall Street
meltdown hit in mid-September of 2008. With his low approval
ratings, Bush would already have been far behind Obama even before
the economic crisis hit, according to Campbell's theory of
conditional retrospective voting.
By the same token, when times are good, the successor candidate
only gets part of the credit that would have gone to the incumbent.
For example, Al Gore received only part of the credit for what most
voters saw as good times in the 2000 election. As the incumbent,
President Clinton would have received the full credit for the
conditions that most voters regarded as being quite positive in the
Campbell explains, "From the end of World War II right up until
today, voters assigned only partial credit or blame for national
conditions to in-party successor candidates. Perhaps this is
because, unlike incumbents, successors are not considered to have
had personal power over policies that might have affected the
national conditions leading up to the election."
The article is co-authored by Bryan J. Dettrey, PhD, visiting
assistant professor of political science, Oklahoma State
University, and Hongxing Yin, a PhD candidate in political science
"Our research examined what we call the theory of 'conditional
retrospective voting' at both the aggregate level on elections
since 1948 and with individual-level survey data since 1972,"
"Our analysis consistently found, as we expected, that for most
voters, the record of the past administration in evaluating
would-be successors does matter," he says, "but not as much as it
would if the incumbent president was running. Voters don't seem to
assume the same degree of continuity as when they are voting for or
against an incumbent."
He says the theory explains why would-be successor candidates
have done better than expected when the incumbent president is
unpopular -- as McCain did in 2008 before the financial crisis hit
-- and worse than expected when the incumbent president was popular
-- as was the case with Al Gore in 2000.
Campbell says political scientists care about the issue of
retrospective voting because it helps to explain how leadership is
determined in this country: why candidates are elected.
"Voting is central to the democratic process," he says, "and
this research helps us identify how it actually works as opposed to
how it was intended to work or how it was assumed to work. It's
hard to imagine any question in the field that is more
"Why someone is elected has great implications for how they are
likely to govern and huge consequences for virtually every aspect
of American life, from war and peace to prosperity and economic
hard times and everything in between," he says.
Campbell says that in our polarized electorate, conditional
retrospective voting among those in the middle is what has
determined the nation's leadership time and time again.
"The country is more polarized now than at any time since the
Civil War," he says.
"We have a group on the left and the right whose ideas of
governance are based on what they consider to be 'core values.' But
that leaves a huge group of people in the middle, and that is the
group that really holds the balance of power," Campbell says.
"Moderates see some things in liberal principles that they like
and some things in conservative principles that they like, so they
are torn. They often decide their votes not so much on the
principles or ideologies of either side, but on the performance of
the parties. This study sheds light on how this crucial part of the
electorate -- the center -- bases its voting decisions on the past
performance of political parties and political leaders," he
"We saw this born out in the 2006 midterm election, and again in
the 2008 election, which turned on performance issues like whether
or how Republicans had handled power," Campbell says.
"And in 2008, voters were concerned with what was happening in
the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and how the Wall Street meltdown had
been handled by the Republicans. Then in the 2010 midterms, with
the Democrats in power, the elections turned largely on how
political moderates thought the Democrats had dealt with high
unemployment levels and the recovery from the recession.
"Understanding how people respond to performance issues and
their retrospective judgments about the record," says Campbell, "is
crucial to understanding what is likely to happen in future
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.