Economic Perception to Political Performance Evaluation: Establishing Precursors to Economic Voting in Africa

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(1) 131 –147
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919888017
Established theories of economic voting predict that vot-
ers can use elections to either reward or punish incumbent
politicians by engaging in a retrospective evaluation of
economic performance. Existing studies on the economic
vote find consistent and robust support in Western
Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Eastern
Europe (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2013). Yet, observers
have often been skeptical about the role of elections in
rewarding or punishing politicians in African democra-
cies, due to factors such as the relatively short history of
African democracies, prevalence of dominant parties,
and clientelistic and ethnic appeals. Empirical evidence
has also been weak: the effects of economic factors on
voter behavior—when found—are weaker than those of
noneconomic factors, such as ethnicity or geography
(Bratton, Bhavnani, and Chen 2012; Posner and Simon
2002; Youde 2005).
This paper investigates economic voting in sub-Saha-
ran Africa by exploiting new theoretical indicators and
using both subjective economic evaluation and objective
economic indicators to capture economic changes.
Economic voting involves a long causal chain consisting
of at least four components: changes in objective
economy, subjective economic perception, subjective
politician performance evaluation, and the eventual polit-
ical action at the polling booth (Anderson 2007; Becher
and Donnelly 2013; Healy and Malhotra 2013). Relying
only on subjective economic perception as the key inde-
pendent variable can make inference difficult, as eco-
nomic perceptions can be a consequence of incumbent
support rather than an influence on it (Bartels 2002;
Evans and Andersen 2006; Evans and Pickup 2010).
Employing only objective economic indicators is also
problematic as changes in the local economy can condi-
tion the influence of any changes at the national-level
macroeconomic indicators on political perception or
behavior (Ansolabehere, Meredith, and Snowberg 2011;
Reeves and Gimpel 2012).
Using more than 55,000 individual-level geo-located
observations across sixteen countries in sub-Saharan
Africa, I test the association between subjective economic
888017PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919888017Political Research QuarterlyRhee
1KDI School of Public Policy and Management, Sejong, Republic of
Corresponding Author:
Inbok Rhee, KDI School of Public Policy and Management, 263
Namsejong-ro, Sejong 30149, Republic of Korea.
Economic Perception to
Political Performance Evaluation:
Establishing Precursors to
Economic Voting in Africa
Inbok Rhee1
Empirical support for economic voting is well documented in advanced democracies. We know less, however, about
the extent and dynamics of economic voting in the developing democracies of sub-Saharan Africa. The relationship
between economic perceptions and incumbent performance evaluations is a critical precursor to vote choice. I
evaluate this link using more than fifty-five thousand individual-level observations across sixteen sub-Saharan African
countries. I find that there exists a strong association between economic perception and performance evaluation
while controlling for a host of covariates, including ethnicity, partisanship, information, and public goods provision.
Contrary to previous findings, however, I show that the influence of economic perception is stronger than many
other factors considered in the models such as coethnicity with the incumbent. Moreover, my findings indicate that
coethnicity—but not copartisanship—conditions the influence of economic perception on performance evaluation. I
use an instrumental variables approach to further validate the findings.
economic voting, Africa, accountability, public opinion
132 Political Research Quarterly 74(1)
perception and performance evaluation. To preview the
results, I find a strong and consistent association between
the two. Such association is robust to the inclusion of a
battery of covariates, including socioeconomic status
(SES), electoral proximity, levels of information, public
goods provision, ethnicity, and partisanship, to different
model specification, and to additional sensitivity analysis.
The results also show that subjective economic percep-
tions have the strongest association on incumbent perfor-
mance evaluations. This effect, however, is conditioned
by ethnicity—but not by partisanship. While both coeth-
nics and non-coethnics of the executive reward good eco-
nomic performance, coethnics are more forgiving of poor
economic performance. Finally, I confirm the main results
using additional robustness checks including an instru-
mental variables (IV) approach exploiting the objective
changes in the economy to instrument for the subjective
economic perception.
The study makes a number of contributions. First, there
is limited understanding about the prevalence of economic
voting in sub-Saharan Africa. The complexities of African
societies, especially ethnic cleavages, economic inequality,
and different levels of economic development provide a
real challenge to economic voting research. This paper con-
siders these societal and economic characteristics, and tests
for both the independent and conditional associations of
partisanship and ethnicity in the context of economic vot-
ing. It also advances the literature that examines factors
affecting the magnitude of economic voting, such as gov-
ernment structures and economic trade (Hellwig and
Samuels 2007; Nadeau, Niemi, and Yoshinaka 2002).
Second, this paper parses out the different steps required for
economic voting and focuses on one segment of the eco-
nomic voting process, namely, the connection between sub-
jective economic evaluation and subjective political
performance evaluation. This helps us better understand an
important step before the voting act—namely, political per-
formance evaluation—which is also crucial for govern-
ment’s legitimacy, ability to enact policies, and ability to
engage in the international community. This also allows me
to bring in the changes in the objective economic conditions
to instrument for the subjective economic perception.
Finally, many existing studies of the topic focus on single-
country case (Arriola 2007; Bratton and Kimenyi 2008;
Ferree 2006; Gibson and Long 2009; Hoffman and Long
2013; Lindberg and Morrison 2008; Posner and Simon
2002; Youde 2005), whereas this paper makes a systematic
cross-national model of economic voting (Bratton,
Bhavnani, and Chen 2012; Norris and Mattes 2003).
Theoretical Foundation
Consistent with the sanctioning model of electoral com-
petition (Barro 1973; Ferejohn 1986), scholars found a
strong correlation between changes in economy and vot-
ing. Prior works have shown that voters are more influ-
enced sociotropically than pocketbook calculations
(Kiewiet 1983; Kinder and Kiewiet 1979), weigh the ret-
rospective evaluation of incumbent performance more
than prospective expectations (Fiorina 1981; Key 1966),
and are possibly harsher in terms of punishments than
rewards (Bloom and Price 1975). These findings are not
exclusive—for instance, voters are both retrospective and
prospective. But the idea of retrospective and sociotropic
voting has been the dominant model.
While much of the early empirics on economic voting
focused on elections in Western Europe and the United
States (Lewis-Beck 1988; Lewis-Beck and Paldam 2000;
Markus 1988), there have also been efforts to examine
similar relationships in developing democracies, espe-
cially in Latin America and Eastern Europe (Lewis-Beck
and Ratto 2013; Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2008; Tucker
2002). Although there are some variations in terms of sta-
tistically and substantively significant effects across stud-
ies conducted in different contexts, the notion that
governments are held accountable for bad economic
management seems to hold with few exceptions (Lewis-
Beck and Stegmaier 2007).
Economic Voting in Sub-Saharan Africa
In the context of African politics, observers have doubted
the link between retrospective economic evaluation and
voting for a number of reasons (Hoffman and Long 2013).
First, the history of electoral democracy is relatively
young, and attribution of responsibility may not function
as well as in advanced democracies (Van de Walle 2003).
Second, voters may have difficulties in assessing politi-
cian performance given the low information environment
(Posner 2005). Third, the typical party system consists of
a dominant party surrounded by a large number of small
and unstable parties, which discourages opposition votes,
and gives incumbent parties dominant positions (Van de
Walle 2003). Fourth, electoral contests are often easily
dominated by valence appeals instead of substantive pol-
icy positions (Bleck and Van de Walle 2011, 2013).
Finally, strong executives have arguably enjoyed signifi-
cant electoral advantages due to factors ranging from
name recognition, access to state resources, and popular
aversion to voting against incumbents (Bratton and Logan
2015; Cho and Logan 2014).
Some recent scholarship challenges these views and
shows that performance also matters to citizens in
Africa. These studies can be classified into four catego-
ries depending on their selection of variables. First,
studies relying on survey data have often tested the
effects of subjective evaluation of the incumbent perfor-
mance on self-reported vote choice or intent to vote.

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