More voter irrationality from The Economist:
[M]ost [social psychologists] argue that it is a widespread tendency to attribute other people’s misfortune to personality traits rather than to the circumstances they find themselves in; we do the reverse when it comes to our own failures. This “fundamental attribution error” is discussed by Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, and his colleagues in a recent paper that could help explain many political outcomes.
There is no simple objective measure of a politician’s competence. But voters’ perception of competency appears to often be determined by ideology. For example 70% of Democratic voters thought Barack Obama would go down in history as an outstanding or above average president at the end of his term compared to 15% of Republicans.
Even while objective outcomes do play a role in determining voters’ attitudes, voters often judge politicians on results that are beyond their control. Justin Wolfers, an economist, found that voters in oil-producing states were more likely to re-elect incumbent governors during oil price rises, and vote them out of office when the oil price drops—despite the fact that governors have effectively no power over the global price of a barrel of crude. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of Princeton and Vanderbelt similarly suggest a strong pattern of voters penalising politicians in the aftermath of floods, droughts and even shark attacks. They argue that in the presidential election of 2000 as many as 2.8m voted against Al Gore (the “incumbent” candidate in that he was a vice-president campaigning to replace his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton) because their states had been too wet or too dry that year.
Voters are less interested in mechanisms to provide better guidance on who is a good politician or protect against bad politicians who are elected regardless: institutions like a free press or oversight mechanisms to fight corruption.
Of course, no voting result can be reduced to a single set of factors, let alone one potential psychological quirk amongst the electorate. But Mr Glaeser and colleagues argue that the attribution error may lead to voters electing the lucky over the competent and selecting politicians on the grounds that they are strong in areas where elected officials actually have little control. Not least, the paper suggests, voters favour presidential candidates who claim that they can manage the economy “despite the fact that presidential control over war and diplomacy is arguably far greater than presidential control over GDP growth”.