Substituting the End for the Whole: Why Voters Respond Primarily to the Election-Year Economy


  • We thank Larry Bartels, Adam Berinsky, Eitan Hersh, Justin Fox, Jens Hainmueller, Paco Flores-Macias, Aaron Kaufman, George Krause, Neil Malhotra, Mike Myers, Leif Nelson, Michael Peress, Kai Quek, Ken Shepsle, Joe Simmons, and Gabor Simonovits for helpful comments and suggestions, as well as seminar participants at Brown University, Colorado State University, Harvard University, MIT, Princeton University, UC Berkeley, UC Merced, University of Rochester, University of Wyoming, and Yale University. Replication data are available from the AJPS Data Archive on Dataverse (


According to numerous studies, the election-year economy influences presidential election results far more than cumulative growth throughout the term. Here we describe a series of surveys and experiments that point to an intriguing explanation for this pattern that runs contrary to standard political science explanations, but one that accords with a large psychological literature. Voters, we find, actually intend to judge presidents on cumulative growth. However, since that characteristic is not readily available to them, voters inadvertently substitute election-year performance because it is more easily accessible. This “end-heuristic” explanation for voters’ election-year emphasis reflects a general tendency for people to simplify retrospective assessments by substituting conditions at the end for the whole. The end-heuristic explanation also suggests a remedy, a way to align voters’ actions with their intentions. Providing people with the attribute they are seeking—cumulative growth—eliminates the election-year emphasis.