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Rudolph: Who's responsible for the economy

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Rudolph. 2003. Who's responsible for the economy? The formation and consequences of responsibility attributions. AJPS 47:698-713.


Arguments about retrospective (economic) voting overlook a central point: People must first attribute responsbility for the economy to the president, Congress, or both before economic concerns can influence voting. Rudolph examines (1) what causes voters to attribute responsibility to Congress, the president, the working class, or businesses and (2) how these attributions influence presidential and Congressional approval.

Theory 1: Predicting attribution of responsibility

Variables and hypotheses

  1. Divided government (perceived) can lead to less attribution of responsibility overall.
  2. Partisan rationalizations: You are more likely to give your party credit for good outcomes and blame the other party for bad outcomes
  3. Economic conservatives are more likely to blame business and workers, but economic liberals are more likely to blame the government.


  • Cross-sectional NES data from 1998.
  • Y: Respondents are asked who is most responsible for economic conditions over the past few years: Congress, the president, working people, or business people. Table 1 summarizes this. It's a fairly even split, with Congress taking the lead.


Democrats are more likely to use partisan rationalizations than Republicans. This may reflect two problems in the design:

  • Republicans are also more likely to be economic conservatives, thus they give their party less credit
  • Multicollinearity. We can't differentiate the effects of party from the effects of institutions, since this is not a time series test. The president was a Democrat in 1998, and the Congress was Republican. Perhaps members of both parties are prone to give the president some credit during good times. Thus, the stronger influence of Democratic partisanship might reflect the Democratic control of the presidency.

Economic conservatism does matter as expected. It makes you slightly more likely to blame working people or business.

Theory 2: Effects of Attribution

Presidential Approval

See Tables 4 and 5. Favorable economic perceptions always help the president, but they help much more when the president is seen as responsible for the economy.

Congressional Approval

Congress benefits from favorable economic perceptions only when it is seen as responsible for the economy (and to a lesser extent when business people are seen as responsible).

Comments and Criticisms

Interesting, but this should be replicated using a time-series analysis. This would have two advantages:

  • Variation in whether government is divided
  • Variation in partisan control of the presidency and Congress
  • What about governors? See Atkeson and Partin; do we perceive governors as responsible for development and presidents as responsible for foreign affairs?