Swing State Economies: Do They Even Matter?

Last week, Ryan Avent noted that the economies of swing states were growing more rapidly than other states.  He suggests that this may help negate the fact that many swing states economies have been, in absolute terms, weaker than other states—a fact Ezra Klein called “Obama’s swing state problem.”

But there’s a more important issue here that hasn’t been addressed: do the economic conditions of states even affect elections?  In short, there’s not a lot of evidence that they do, above and beyond the effect of the national economy.

For example, this paper by Stephen Ansolabehere, Marc Meredith, and Erik Snowberg documents an association between change in state unemployment rates and both evaluations of the national economy and presidential approval.  But the effects of the national economy matter much more:

…independent variation in state unemployment rates has about 25% of the effect of similar variations in the national unemployment rate.

…one percent increase in the national unemployment rate is associated with a roughly three percentage point decrease in presidential approval.  Controlling for national trends, an additional one percentage point state-level increase in unemployment is associated with roughly a 0.6 percentage point decrease in approval…the independent correlation between state-level unemployment and approval is roughly 20% of the national-level correlation.

I explored the relationship between state economies and presidential elections in a previous post.  Let me recapitulate those findings.  First, Thomas Holbrook found that state-level economies—measured with unemployment or changes in real per capita income—had no relationship to presidential election outcomes in the states in 1960-84, once measures of the national economy were taken into account.  Second, Daniel Eisenberg and Jonathan Ketchum’s study of the 1972-2000 elections also finds that the national economy outweighs the effect of state and county economies:

Evidently, voters believe the president has little effect on their local economy, and they do not form their evaluation of the national economy based on surrounding conditions. This finding suggests that people form their opinions of the national economy based on non-local factors, such as the national media.

As I said in my post, commentators are sometimes too quick to focus on the details of states and communities, which can downplay, if only by implication, how much national forces shape elections.  In fact, the unique features of states have become less important over time.  Andy has shown that states have become more similar in their partisan shifts from election year to election year—that is, the shifts (or “swings”) have become more uniform across states.  The most consequential economic fact is the national trend and perceptions of that trend.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.