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Keywords:

  • performance voting;
  • government accountability;
  • individual heterogeneity;
  • political sophistication and salience

Abstract

This study suggests that performance voting is characterised by extensive individual heterogeneity. Most economic voting studies to date treat voters as rather homogeneous in their reactions to economic performance of incumbents. Yet, a large and well-established line of research from the American context demonstrates the conditional impact of political sophistication and salience on voters' political attitudes and behaviour. Building on this work, this article explores individual-level variation in performance voting due to political sophistication and salience. Utilising cross-national data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) including 25 democracies, performance voting is examined across an array of policy areas including the economy, social welfare, immigration and national security, and it is shown that political sophistication and salience are key moderators of performance voting. The findings suggest that holding governments to account for past performance is mainly the prerogative of the highly sophisticated and thus may be more laborious than previously assumed. At the same time, the results indicate that the sophistication gap in performance voting narrows when voters attach a higher degree of salience to a policy area. As long as voters care enough about government activities in a particular policy area, incumbents can expect credit or blame for policy outcomes. This should provide at least some impetus for responsive policy making.