American Political Science Review

Research Article

Unemployment and the Democratic Electoral Advantage

JOHN R. WRIGHT 

Ohio State University

Abstract

This article calls into question the conventional wisdom that incumbent parties are rewarded when unemployment is low and punished when it is high. Using county-level data on unemployment and election returns for 175 midterm gubernatorial elections and 4 presidential elections from 1994 to 2010, the analysis finds that unemployment and the Democratic vote for president and governor move together. Other things being equal, higher unemployment increases the vote shares of Democratic candidates. The effect is greatest when Republicans are the incumbent party, but Democrats benefit from unemployment even when they are in control. The explanation for these findings is that unemployment is a partisan issue for voters, not a valence issue, and that the Democratic Party “owns” unemployment. When unemployment is high or rising, Democratic candidates can successfully convince voters that they are the party best able to solve the problem.

Correspondence

John R. Wright is Professor, Department of Political Science, Ohio State University, 2140 Derby Hall, Columbus, OH 42310 (wright.569@osu.edu).

Footnotes

  I appreciate helpful comments and advice from Rod Kiewiet, Mike Lewis-Beck, William Minozzi, and the referees.

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