How Lasting Is Voter Gratitude? An Analysis of the Short- and Long-Term Electoral Returns to Beneficial Policy


  • We benefited from the comments of Adam Berinsky, Mark Dincecco, Robert Franzese, Simon Hug, Nikitas Konstantinidis, Gabe Lenz, Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato, the audiences at European Business School (EBS) University Wiesbaden, Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI), IMT Lucca, New York University, the participants of the 2010 annual meeting of the German Political Science Association’s AK Handlungs- und Entscheidungstheorie, and members of the international political economy research group at ETH Zurich. We would like to thank the editor Rick K. Wilson and our five anonymous reviewers for their excellent suggestions. Jitka Vinuskova and Heidrun Bohnet provided valuable research assistance. We thank Holger Heidrich-Riske from the German Statistical Office and Oliver Watteler from the GESIS – Leibniz-Institut für Sozialwissenschaften for providing data. Supplementary information and replication data for this article are available at The usual disclaimer applies.

Michael M. Bechtel is a Senior Researcher, Center for Comparative and International Studies, WEC 25, CH-8092 Zurich ( Jens Hainmueller is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139 (


Dominant theories of electoral behavior emphasize that voters myopically evaluate policy performance and that this shortsightedness may obstruct the welfare-improving effect of democratic accountability. However, we know little about how long governments receive electoral credit for beneficial policies. We exploit the massive policy response to a major natural disaster, the 2002 Elbe flooding in Germany, to provide an upper bound for the short- and long-term electoral returns to targeted policy benefits. We estimate that the flood response increased vote shares for the incumbent party by 7 percentage points in affected areas in the 2002 election. Twenty-five percent of this short-term reward carried over to the 2005 election before the gains vanished in the 2009 election. We conclude that, given favorable circumstances, policy makers can generate voter gratitude that persists longer than scholarship has acknowledged so far, and elaborate on the implications for theories of electoral behavior, democratic accountability, and public policy.