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The dismal psephologist

Economics is often called the dismal science. And for a double dose of depression, today we’ll combine economics with psephology … the…

Economics is often called the dismal science. And for a double dose of depression, today we’ll combine economics with psephology … the study of elections.

Econopundits have often claimed that the flash and bang of election campaigns are meaningless and that people vote with their wallets.

If the economy is going up, the incumbent wins. If it’s a recession, no amount of clever policy, compelling speechmaking or extreme image makeovers can save you.

With Canada’s fourth most famous economist now in the prime minister’s swivel chair, we thought we would test this hypothesis. (Some statisticians have a rival hypothesis that the taller candidate wins 59 per cent of the time, but we’ll just ignore them.)

A glance at the chart appears to support the econopundit theory.

For each of the past 11 elections, the bar shows whether the economy was growing faster or slower than average.

And the diamonds show how much the incumbent won or lost by, in terms of popular vote. We would expect positive bars to be linked to incumbent wins and vice versa.

Of the six elections since 1972 that occurred when the economy was performing above average, the incumbent scored a higher popular vote than the main challenger five times. The exception is John Turner in 1984, who had to cope with not just his own unpopularity but also that of his predecessor Pierre Trudeau.

And when economic growth was below average, the incumbent lost three out of five elections.

One of the winners was Paul Martin in 2004, although he only eked out a minority. The other was Pierre Trudeau, who beat Robert Stanfield by mocking Stanfield’s wage-and-price-control proposal and then implemented it once in office.

So the economy clearly has a strong influence on incumbent survival.

You can also see this from the irregular dates of our elections.

Whenever the economy was below average, the prime minister of the day tended to wait as long as possible to call an election.

The evidence from the United States is similar, although incumbent presidents don’t have the luxury of choosing the polling day like in Canada.

It takes some effort to lose an election when the economy is growing, although Gerald Ford (thanks to Watergate) and George Bush the elder managed it.

In the latter case, the economy actually grew in 1992 but hadn’t the year before.

Voters felt uncertain, which is why James Carville hung that famous “It’s the economy, stupid” sign on the wall of Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters.

Of course, the economy is not really the only driver of voting behaviour. Three of the last 11 elections broke the pattern.

Perhaps not even an economic boom could have saved John Turner.

And Robert Stanfield needed a lot more than a shaky economy to take down wily Pierre Trudeau.

Which brings us to 2008.

As shown by the chart, economic growth is below average. Based on past prime ministers, you would have expected Stephen Harper to have waited to call an election.

As he is alleged to have joked, “The longer I’m prime minister … the longer I’m prime minister.”

However, by breaking his commitment to fixed election dates and calling an election when the economy is below trend, he is boldly challenging the odds. Either he thinks this election will be dominated by non  economic issues, such as leadership, superior campaign funding or more aggressive attack ads.

Or the boffins at the department of Finance have told him that 2009’s economy is likely to be even worse.