Do voters believe that the president can influence the economy?

Voters seem to interpret the economy through a distinctly partisan lens.

This analysis was performed by Ethan Busby, a student research fellow at BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (“like” CSED on Facebook), in collaboration with CSED faculty. The writing is mostly his. Inquiries about this research should come to David Magleby or Jeremy Pope.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama and Governor Romney clashed endlessly over the economy. Each presented a different vision of the state of America’s economy, and each had their own plans on how to improve the economic situation. For these differences to matter, however, voters actually have to believe that the president can influence the economy.

As part of the Utah Colleges Exit Poll, we asked voters about this influence on Election Day.1 The figure below gives the voters’ responses, with responses grouped by party.2

Utah voters’ perceptions of presidential influence over the economy, 2012

A distinctly partisan pattern emerges in these responses. Utah’s Republicans overwhelmingly feel the president has a significant influence on the economy; Democrats, on the other hand, consider the president’s economic influence to be moderate or small.3 Given these results, are voters’ views on the president’s economic influence colored by partisanship? Do Republicans always think the president has a significant influence on the economy or do their views change when a Democrat president presides over a struggling economy?

In 1992, the Utah Colleges Exit Poll asked respondents a similar question about the president and the economy.4 In many ways, the political situation in 1992 also mirrored the election in 2012. The incumbent faced tough economic times and a challenger who made the economy the major push of his campaign. In the 1992 campaign, however, the incumbent George H.W. Bush was a Republican, and the challenger, Bill Clinton, was a Democrat. Utah voters in 1992 felt differently:

Utah voters’ perceptions of presidential influence on the economy, 1992

The difference in these figures is striking. As a whole, Democrats and Republicans in Utah held the reverse opinions in 1992 as they did in 2012. More than 70 percent of Utah’s Republicans felt that the economy was outside the president’s control, and almost the same amount of Utah’s Democrats felt that an effective president could control the economy. Independents fell almost exactly in the middle on this question.5

Voters seem to interpret the economy through a distinctly partisan lens. Perhaps our economic perceptions are simply not objective. When the economy is bad, those who support the president claim economic matters are beyond his power to control. Those who want to replace the president instead claim that he is responsible for economic problems and that the challenger can reasonably fix the economic situation. Our evaluation of the economy may be much less reasonable than we’d like to think. In 1992, Clinton’s campaign famously embraced the motto that “It’s the economy, stupid.” This motto may not be as true as it is catchy. Stupid or not, it’s all about the politics.

Notes about survey methodology

The Utah Colleges Exit Poll is an exit poll administered to a multistage sample across the state of Utah. This survey was administered on Election Day (in both 2012 and 1992) during the time that voting locations were open. You can click here to read more about the exit poll.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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