Keeping up with the Joneses: Relative economic voting, electoral participation, and reference points
This research explores the role relative economy plays in vote choice and turnout. The decision to vote and for whom to vote are heavily predicated on selecting competent policymakers based on their performance handling the economy. To do so, voters must infer the leader's competence based on observations of the economy. I argue that voters can better extract the 'competence signal' by comparing their own economy with the economies of reference countries that share a great deal of familiarity, similarity and connectivity. A relatively strong economy signals incumbent competence whereas a relatively poor one signals their incompetence, and thus, incumbent vote share and voter turnout should be a function of the relative economy. By selecting appropriate reference points from news media in 22 different languages from 33 democracies, this research demonstrates that incumbents tend to be rewarded with increasing vote shares for out-performing growth and are punished for growth that under-performs relative to reference economies. It also reveals that the relatively poor economy makes voters alienated and indifferent from politics, which eventually leads them to abstain from voting. This research has an important implication for democratic electoral accountability; despite frequent instability between the economy and vote choice, this research reaffirms democratic theorists by showing that elections offer citizens periodic chances to change policymakers.