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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley speak at a COVID-19 update press conference in Whitehorse on Nov. 19. On Nov. 24, Silver and Hanley announced masks will be mandatory in public places as of Dec. 1, and encouraged Yukoners to begin wearing masks immediately. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Masks mandatory in public places starting on Dec. 1

“The safe six has just got a plus one,” Silver said.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks at a press conference in Whitehorse on March 30. Hanley announced three more COVID-19 cases in a release on Nov. 21. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three more COVID-19 cases, new exposure notice announced

The Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Brendan Hanley, announced three… Continue reading

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: COVID-19 strikes another blow at high-school students

They don’t show up very often in COVID-19 case statistics, but they… Continue reading

The Cornerstone housing project under construction at the end of Main Street in Whitehorse on Nov. 19. Community Services Minister John Streicker said he will consult with the Yukon Contractors Association after concerns were raised in the legislature about COVID-19 isolation procedures for Outside workers at the site. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Concerns raised about alternate self-isolation plans for construction

Minister Streicker said going forward, official safety plans should be shared across a worksite

Beatrice Lorne was always remembered by gold rush veterans as the ‘Klondike Nightingale’. (Yukon Archives/Maggies Museum Collection)
History Hunter: Beatrice Lorne — The ‘Klondike Nightingale’

In June of 1929, 11 years after the end of the First… Continue reading

Samson Hartland is the executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. The Yukon Chamber of Mines elected a new board of directors during its annual general meeting held virtually on Nov. 17. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Yukon Chamber of Mines elects new board

The Yukon Chamber of Mines elected a new board of directors during… Continue reading

The Yukon Hospital Corporation has released its annual report for 2019-20, and — unsurprisingly — hospital visitations were down. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Annual report says COVID-19 had a large impact visitation numbers at Whitehorse General

The Yukon Hospital Corporation has released its annual report for 2019-20, and… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

City council was closed to public on March 23 due to gathering rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The council is now hoping there will be ways to improve access for residents to directly address council, even if it’s a virtual connection. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Solution sought to allow for more public presentations with council

Teleconference or video may provide opportunities, Roddick says

Megan Waterman, director of the Lastraw Ranch, is using remediated placer mine land in the Dawson area to raise local meat in a new initiative undertaken with the Yukon government’s agriculture branch. (Submitted)
Dawson-area farm using placer miner partnership to raise pigs on leased land

“Who in their right mind is going to do agriculture at a mining claim? But this made sense.”

Riverdale residents can learn more details of the City of Whitehorse’s plan to FireSmart a total of 24 hectares in the area of Chadburn Lake Road and south of the Hidden Lakes trail at a meeting on Nov. 26. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)
Meeting will focus on FireSmart plans

Riverdale residents will learn more details of the City of Whitehorse’s FireSmarting… Continue reading

The City of Whitehorse is planning to borrow $10 million to help pay for the construction of the operations building (pictured), a move that has one concillor questioning why they don’t just use reserve funds. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Councillor questions borrowing plan

City of Whitehorse would borrow $10 million for operations building

Most Read