WP147: A vote of confidence: Retrospective voting in Africa

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Working papers
Ellis, Erin

The literature on African voting motivations has largely emphasized factors such as ethnic similarity, patron-client loyalty and urban dwellers’ affinity for change. Retrospective voting is either overlooked or understood as a response to purely economic conditions. I argue that retrospective voting—operationalized in a broad, social and economic sense—is a powerful explanation for recurring incumbent support in light of macroeconomic booms occurring throughout the region since the mid-1990s. Drawing on Afrobarometer survey data, a logistic regression model explores the voting motivations of more than 22,000 respondents from thirteen Sub-Saharan African countries. The results show statistically and substantively significant evidence that African voters are retrospective: as perceptions of the government’s general performance or handling of particular social and economic issues improves, so does the likelihood of incumbent support, and vice versa. The findings produce three key takeaways. First, micro-level voting behavior is linked to macro-level economic performance. Second, performance assessments are as much social as they are economic. Third, high incumbent reelection rates suggest a more optimistic forecast of African leadership and accountability.