Several aggregate-level studies have found a relationship between macroeconomic conditions and election outcomes, operating in intuitively plausible directions. More recent survey-based studies, however, have been unable to detect any comparable relationship operating at the individual-voter level. This persistent discrepancy is puzzling. One recently proposed explanation for it is that voters actually behave in an altruistic or “sociotropic” fashion, responding to economic events only as they affect the general welfare, rather than in terms of self-interested “pocketbook” considerations.
It is argued here that the discrepancies between the macro- and microlevel studies are a statistical artifact, arising from the fact that observable changes in individual welfare actually consist of two unobservable components, a government-induced (and politically relevant) component, and an exogenous component caused by life-cycle and other politically irrelevant factors. Because of this, individual level cross-sectional estimates of the effects of welfare changes on voting are badly biased and are essentially unrelated to the true values of the behavioral parameters of interest: they will generally be considerable underestimates and may even be of the wrong sign. An aggregate-level time-series analysis, on the other hand, will often yield reasonably good (if somewhat attenuated) estimates of the underlying individual-level effects of interest. Therefore, in this case, individual behavior is best investigated with aggregate- rather than individual-level data.
It is also shown that the evidence for sociotropic voting is artifactual, in the sense that the various findings and evidence which ostensibly show sociotropic behavior are all perfectly compatible with the null hypothesis of self-interested, pocketbook voting.