Back in 1992, Democratic strategist James Carville uttered his famous recommendation to Bill Clinton ahead of the 1992 election: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Political scientists beat Carville to the punch, though: As far back as the 1950’s, scholars were uncovering evidence that presidential candidates of the incumbent party tend to win when the economy is strong on Election Day.
Presiding over a gloomy economy, in contrast, will guarantee a tortuous uphill climb for parties vying to maintain their place in the White House.
After more than 50 years of scholarly research on this seemingly straightforward relationship, new insights from political psychologists have shaken the field. Their central finding should be apparent to anyone who remembers the last time their fiercely Republican aunt sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with her staunchly Democratic brother-in-law. Heading into the 2016 election, Aunt Reba the Republican is convinced the economy is in utter shambles, while Denny the Democrat is steadfast in his economic optimism.
These disagreements have alarmed people concerned about accountability in electoral politics. How can Americans reward or punish incumbents for their performance in office if they can’t agree on the basic economic facts?