This article calls into question the conventional wisdom that incumbent parties are rewarded when unemployment is low and punished when it is high. Using county-level data on unemployment and election returns for 175 midterm gubernatorial elections and 4 presidential elections from 1994 to 2010, the analysis finds that unemployment and the Democratic vote for president and governor move together. Other things being equal, higher unemployment increases the vote shares of Democratic candidates. The effect is greatest when Republicans are the incumbent party, but Democrats benefit from unemployment even when they are in control. The explanation for these findings is that unemployment is a partisan issue for voters, not a valence issue, and that the Democratic Party “owns” unemployment. When unemployment is high or rising, Democratic candidates can successfully convince voters that they are the party best able to solve the problem.
[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]