Beyond GDP: economic growth may not be enough to get voters on your side

Making it count. Why voters vote. AdamKR, CC BY-SA

As ever in the run-up to a general election, Britain is seeing an increased interest in how the economy has been performing. The electoral fate of a government is often expected to relate directly to the state of the nation’s wallets. But as new evidence suggests, there may be more to it than simple financial indicators.

Politicians have long focused on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the main measure of national progress, and for a very good reason. One of the most well-known findings in the social sciences – particularly by those working in and around politics – is that voting intention goes hand in hand with how well the economy is performing.

Numerous studies going back as far as the 1920s have shown that voters reward incumbents at the ballot box during periods of economic prosperity, and punish them during downturns.

Beyond GDP

There is a growing interest, however, in indicators of national progress that go beyond the purely economic, and seek to more accurately capture the population’s overall wellbeing. One option that has gained in popularity is to ask people directly how happy or satisfied they are with their lives.

Many countries, the UK included, are beginning to collect self-reported well-being or “happiness” data in order to help policymakers focus on what matters to the quality of people’s lives. This is in line with the recommendations of influential commissions led by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the former UK cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, as well as reports by the EU and the OECD.

Are EU happy? Giampaolo Squarcina, CC BY-NC-ND

The Eurobarometer, a survey carried out by the European Commission, has since 1973 been regularly asking people the following:

On the whole, how satisfied are you with the life you lead?

Rewarded with votes

I have researched trends in the responses to this question alongside general election results over the past four decades, and it shows that people in European countries do seem to punish incumbent governments at the polls during spells of low national wellbeing, and reward them during happier periods. Similar research using UK data also finds that people’s voting intentions are influenced by their feelings of wellbeing over time.

Some of this can be explained by the impact a robust or failing economy has on people’s wellbeing, but by no means all of it. Both the economy and people’s wider wellbeing seem independently important in determining government vote share. And this makes sense. Given that governments play a part in various areas of people’s lives, there seems no immediate reason for voters to evaluate government performance based solely on economic performance, however much it might simplify the lives of pundits and campaign managers.

For example, a major housing-mobility experiment in the United States gave the opportunity, via random lottery, to families living in high-poverty areas to move to more prosperous neighbourhoods. An evaluation of the programme showed it led to improvements in self-reported wellbeing, but had no significant impact on employment or earnings. We might reasonably expect the wellbeing increases associated with such a policy to have at least some bearing on participants’ opinions about government performance. If we take a narrow focus on economic outcomes, however, we would not expect this kind of policy to have any effect on voting behaviour at all.

In the run-up to the UK election, the Conservative campaign led by Lynton Crosby has made the economy a key focus. But is this too narrow? Back in 2010, David Cameron said in a speech:

We’ll start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving.

Will voters judge him in these broader terms in May? The small but growing body of research on wellbeing and voting suggests they might.

David Cameron drums up support at conference. Andy Rain/EPA


The key implications of this line of research lie in the incentives that voting patterns give to politicians. The impressive evidence on economic voting gives governments a strong incentive to work hard to ensure a buoyant economy in order to win votes. But this leaves open the possibility that governments will be left poorly incentivised across a wide range of other policymaking areas that matter to people’s lives.

Evidence of a link between national wellbeing and voting behaviour suggests there is an electoral dividend for politicians if they focus on a broader range of factors influencing people’s wellbeing rather than concentrating only on ensuring a healthy election-year economy. We know, for example, from a growing body of research into the science of happiness, that wellbeing is sensitive to many factors such as mental and physical health, pollution, crime rates, corruption, social cohesion, as well as income and employment.

Political leaders may only now be beginning to think about government performance in terms of the country’s happiness. But research examining wellbeing data stretching back to the 1970s suggests voters themselves may have long evaluated government performance in terms that go “beyond GDP”. Wellbeing data can’t tell you who’s going to win an election any better than polling on voting intentions. But it can help uncover what is behind people’s voting behaviour, and what it is that politicians should be concentrating on in order to win people’s votes on May 7.