The Journal of Politics


Is the Government to Blame? An Experimental Test of How Partisanship Shapes Perceptions of Performance and Responsibility

James Tilleya1 and Sara B. Hobolta2

a1 University of Oxford

a2 University of Oxford


The idea that voters use elections to hold governments to account for their performance lies at the heart of democratic theory, and countless studies have shown that economic performance can predict support for incumbents. Nonetheless recent work has challenged this simple link between policy performance and party choice by arguing that any relationship is conditioned by prior political beliefs, notably partisanship. Some have argued that economic perceptions are shaped by party choice rather than vice versa. Others have claimed that voters tend to attribute responsibility for perceived successes to their favored party, but absolve them of responsibility if performance is poor. This study examines the effect of partisanship on both performance evaluations and responsibility attributions using survey experiments to disentangle the complex causal relationships. Our findings show that partisan loyalties have pervasive effects on responsibility attributions, but somewhat weaker effects on evaluations of performance.

(Online publication May 13 2011)


James Tilley is a university lecturer at the University of Oxford and fellow of Jesus College, Oxford OX1 3DW, UK.

Sara B. Hobolt is a university lecturer at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford OX1 3DR, UK.