Attention, Asymmetry, and Government Popularity in Britain

Date01 March 1991
Published date01 March 1991
Subject MatterArticles
J. LANOUE, University of California, Riverside
has been an accepted axiom for a number of years that econom-
ics plays an important part in the fortunes of British political par-
ties. Nevertheless, the systematic study of how different
macroeconomic indicators affect political variables began fairly recently.
Since the early work on the effects of inflation and unemployment on
party popularity, conducted by Goodhart and Bhansali in 1970, a
large body of evidence has emerged linking economic fluctuations with
government popularity and electoral success (Frey and Schneider 1981;
Whiteley 1984a, 1984b; Hibbs et al. 1982; Richardson and Moon
1984; Alt 1985; Mishler et al. 1986; Headrick 1987; and Norpoth
1987a, 1987b). While there have been some dissenting voices (Frey
and Garbers 1971; Miller and Mackie 1974; and Chrystal and Alt
1981), most scholars now accept the importance of the politico-economic
A few studies have added political (or noneconomic) variables to
their models of British government and party popularity. These stud-
ies have generally focused on relatively short periods of time, and on
specific events. They indicate that these events can have substantial
effects on short-term fluctuations in popularity. The addition of polit-
ical variables to models of popularity however, does not erase the effects
of economic variables. Among the political events considered by research-
ers are the Falklands War, conflicts within the Labour party, the foun-
dation of the Social Democratic party (and its subsequent alliance
with the Liberals), and major strikes (Clarke et al. 1986; Norpoth
1987a, 1987b; Mishler et al. 1986).
RECEIVED: July 26, 1989
NOTE: The authors, who are listed alphabetically, contributed equally to the writing of
this paper. We are grateful to Helmut Norpoth, Shaun Bowler, and the
anonymous referees of this journal for their assistance on this project. An earlier
version of this paper was presented at the 1988 meeting of the Southern Political
Science Association, Atlanta, Georgia.

This paper moves beyond the basic question of whether or not eco-
nomic conditions influence public opinion on Great Britain. Instead,
we are concerned with the conditions under which these effects occur
most prominently. Specifically we will consider two issues of potential
importance: first, whether voters react primariy to significant changes
in economic conditions rather than absolute levels; and second, whether
the effects of the economy on public opinion are asymmetric, as voters
&dquo;punish&dquo; parties for bad economic outcomes but fail to &dquo;reward&dquo; them
for improvements.
The assumption implicit in most studies of the effects of economics
on popularity is that the public’s attention toward economic variables
is constant. It is assumed that voters punish and possibly reward polit-
ical parties and leaders for economic fluctuations because such changes
are watched closely by an attentive public. This assumption does not
require that the public know precisely the current rate of inflation or
the exact level of unemployment. Rather, it requires a general aware-
ness of economic circumstances and a general sense of whether infla-
tion and unemployment are rising or falling. This sense of how the
economy is performing may lag behind actual changes in the econ-
omy, but it is assumed to be continuous.
challenge this notion that voters constantly monitor the state of
the economy. Given limits on time, information, and attention, it is
unreasonable to assume that the public keeps vigilant watch over the
economy. A quick scan of public opinion polls in any nation demon-
strates that economic issues capture public attention to the greatest
degree when those indicators are undergoing substantial fluctuations.
When economic performance is relatively stable, other issues (such as
foreign policy) rise in importance and dominate the public agenda.
Voters are faced with a constant barrage of information about their
world, far too much for them to assimilate reasonably. The literature
in social psychology informs us that people are necessarily selective in
what they perceive. Put simply, extreme stimuli generally receive greater
attention than more moderate stimuli (Fiske and Taylor 1984). Conse-
quently, we would expect most economic information to be unheeded
by the majority of the electorate, lost among the numerous other polit-
ical and non-political stimuli available at any given time. Economic

change should have a significant effect on government popularity only
when certain indicators experience dramatic changes over a relatively
short period of time. When economic measures are stable (at whatever
level), and change in these measures is less conspicuous, we would not
expect economic conditions to influence approval ratings. (See Lanoue
1988 for a similar discussion regarding presidential popularity in the
United States.)
Some support for this view has been found in the literature. Mosley
(1987) argues that British voters react not to ordinary economic fluc-
tuations, but to periods of crisis. He defines these times of crisis (rather
arbitrarily) as years in which the inflation or unemployment rates devi-
ate from their &dquo;trend values&dquo; (trend values are defined as expected
values of the two economic variables based on a linear increase in
levels over time). Relying on a time lag of six months between eco-
nomic conditions and voter reaction (the lag structure is also specified
arbitrarily), Mosley finds that crises do, indeed, generate greater voter
wrath than &dquo;normal&dquo; conditions.
Mosley suggests that voters react to overall levels of inflation and
unemployment rather than changes in these indicators. Thus, he labels
1956 as a crisis year for inflation, even though the actual inflation rate
itself had declined sharply from 1955. For unemployment, too, the
direction of change is not so important to Mosley as whether or not the
level of a given variable exceeds his expected standards. While his over-
all findings are supportive of the premise that voters are especially at-
tentive during crisis periods, some inconsistencies remain. For example,
after controlling for the time (in months) to the nearest election, both
the inflation and unemployment crisis variables become insignificant.
It is possible that part of the problem here might lie in Mosley’s
assumptions about voters’ decision-making calculus. We would suggest
that voters are concerned not just with the level of different economic
indicators, but also with the direction of movement of these variables.
Voters, we argue, are attentive to the upward and downward move-
ment of, for instance, unemployment and punish (or possibly reward)
politicians accordingly. In American politics, one example of this phe-
nomenon occured in 1984 when the public credited President Reagan
with ushering in economic recovery even though the unemployment
rate was higher than when he took office. The point, of course, is that
after the recession of 1982-83 unemployment was in steady decline
and voters appeared (however &dquo;irrationally&dquo;) to be grateful.

The asymmetry hypothesis is one which has received only occa-
sional attention in the literature on economics and voting. The hypoth-
esis states that voters are much more attentive to negative economic
information than they are to positive information; they are more inclined
to punish failure than to reward success. Consequently, government
popularity is expected to decline when economic circumstances are
unfavorable, but is not expected to rise during periods of prosperity.
This asymmetry in voters’ reactions and behavior bodes poorly for
incumbents. Economic fluctuations, it is argued, are exclusively a source
of erosion for the party’s public standing. Even the most successful
economic management goes unrewarded, while economic downturns
are generally punished in opinion surveys and at the polling place. At
its most extreme, this hypothesis would suggest that, all else being
equal, government popularity should be expected to fall inevitably
over time.
Bloom and Price (1975) were the first scholars to identify and test
the asymmetry hypothesis, looking at changes in real income levels in
the United States over a 74-year period. They found that the share of
the vote received by the president’s party in U.S. congressional elec-
tions fell during periods in which income levels declined, but was gen-
erally unaffected during years in which income levels rose. They con-
tend that these findings are consistent with the literature in social
psychology, which argues that negative information and cues are more
salient than positive cues, and provide a stronger motivation for behav-
ior and action (see also Lau 1985).
In addition to Bloom and Price, several other works on economics
and politics in the United States, including The American Voter (Campbell
et al. 1960), have provided evidence in support of this hypothesis. Mueller
(1973) found that &dquo;economic slumps&dquo; (measured as rising unemploy-
ment rates) had a damaging effect on presidential popularity from
Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson. Falling unemployment, however,
was not associated with any increase in...

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