The Journal of Politics


Presidents and the Prospective Voter

Helmut Norpotha1

a1 State University of New York at Stony Brook


The economy being the key to presidential popularity, what is the economic intelligence inspiring the approval judgments of American voters? According to one school of thought, the public relies on the current performance of the economy (the retrospective voter), while a rival makes the case for expectations about the future economy (the prospective voter). I conduct a time-series analysis combining consumer surveys and presidential approval polls (1960–1993). The results unequivocally reject the prospective claim and confirm the retrospective one. Depending on the measure used, economic expectations either prove too sensitive to political interventions (change in the White House, wars, and scandals) to shape presidential approval; or else, economic expectations do no more than encapsulate information about the current state of the economy. The research bears out the wisdom and the fairness of the retrospective calculus. To judge a president's performance in office is not a question about things to come but about things done.

(Accepted January 23 1995)

(Received July 14 1995)

Helmut Norpoth is professor of political science, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY 11794–4392.