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How Voters Evaluate Economic Competence: A Comparison between Parties In and Out of Power



Accounts of general election outcomes increasingly talk about voters comparing parties in terms of their perceived competence to manage the economy and public services. This raises the question of how voters form evaluations of party competence. While it is assumed that voters form evaluations of the incumbent based on the signals provided by its current performance in office it is less clear how, in the absence of such a performance record, voters might evaluate the potential competence of the opposition. Using data from the British Election Panel Studies this article models the process by which voters form evaluations of parties' competence to manage the economy and compares results across incumbent and opposition parties. On the basis of evidence from general elections of 1992–2001 the article demonstrates that the process of evaluation formation does differ between parties in and out of power with retrospective evaluations of recent economic performance influencing evaluations of the former but not the latter. Nevertheless, the article also demonstrates that voters are capable of forming evaluations of the opposition which are more than a simple mirror image of their evaluations of the incumbent. In the absence of an up-to-date performance record these evaluations are based on long-term partisan and ideological predispositions and the cues provided by party leaders.