Common sense says the most important issue in American elections is the state of the economy. If the economy is good, voters stick with the incumbent party or politician; if it is bad, they vote for change. Or so the thinking goes.
But the reality is much more complicated according to Jonathan Rogers, instructor for political science at NYU Abu Dhabi.
"When it comes to voting, for years, researchers and the media have repeated the phrase it's 'the economy, stupid,'" a slogan attributed to Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign manager James Carville, Rogers said. "The idea being that if the economy is doing poorly, voters will punish the incumbent party."
But the economy is not any one thing, and "there is no agreement on what aspect of the economy is most important" to voters, Rogers said. "Is it GDP, unemployment, home prices, or something else?"
Rogers has found that the local economy influences voters just as much as the national economy, since the local factors have a direct impact on their lives. (He published a paper on the topic in 2014.) And in the United States, the health of the local economy can vary wildly from one city to the next.
And though voters have knowledge of their own financial fitness — if they are making enough money, if they can pay their bills — their perception of the economy, both national and local, is influenced by a myriad of other factors, like education, gender, race, and political attitudes.
Anger has a way of clouding judgment. A group that is enraged is not likely to listen to facts or reasoned opposition, especially when negotiation and compromise become equated with cowardice.
In a recent analysis conducted with data gathered in 2010 and 2011, Rogers found that the strongest indicator of a person's evaluation of the economy was their support for the Tea Party, a populist political movement that crested during the midterm elections of 2010. And Tea Party supporters overwhelmingly said the economy was bad. The paper was published in Electoral Studies.
This is perhaps not surprising in itself. The rhetoric of populist movements like the Tea Party often argue that the incumbent party is making poor decisions and supporting populist candidates will bring change. But Rogers found that Tea Party supporters believed the economy was failing even if it was improving and their personal circumstances were good.
"When you ask people about the economy, there are certain factors that you expect to bias their opinion," Rogers said. "The educated are more likely to have factual information, but are also more likely to be financially secure," and will therefore say that the economy is doing well.
On the other hand, those who don't have jobs are more likely to say it is sputtering, which reflects their personal experience.
But when controlling for factors like income, education, and others, support for the Tea Party was the clearest indication of a person saying the economy was in distress.
"An obvious response is that maybe people were supporting the Tea Party because they were suffering in a weak economy," Rogers explained. "But that was not really the case. Supporters appeared to just be angry and were justifying their anger by saying that the economy was bad."
"People join groups like the Tea Party and Occupy movement in the US, the leave campaign in the UK, the Front National in France, and other such groups, because they are angry with the status quo," Rogers said. "Populist movements aren't inherently delusional. There are often completely legitimate grievances that governments have left unaddressed. But anger has a way of clouding judgment. A group that is enraged is not likely to listen to facts or reasoned opposition, especially when negotiation and compromise become equated with cowardice."
According to Rogers, it is not surprising that supporters of the Tea Party were angry. It is, however, surprising that their anger cannot be attributed to a poor local economy. And what's even more unexpected is that these individuals' "anger was so strong that it was the best predictor of how they perceived the economy," Rogers said.
With populist movements on the rise in the US and in Europe, Rogers thinks establishment politicians should take the grievances of populist supporters seriously. "Populist anger is not something you can calmly reason away," he said. "If the people are angry, you need to find a way to assuage that anger or you could face electoral consequences."