When Americans go to the polls, they look to the past – not the future

There’s one question that almost every American voter asks him- or herself when casting their vote for president.

Has the incumbent’s – or the incumbent party’s – past performance in office been sufficient to merit another term?

Unlike voters in many other industrialized countries, Americans tend to vote from this “retrospective” perspective. Studies show that Americans view elections – especially presidential ones – as a referendum on the past performance of an officeholder, a political party or the current administration.

There are a few pivotal issues at the heart of that one question. My research on electoral behavior suggests that, depending on the particular moment in time, voters normally tend to focus on a few key issues.

Retrospective voting in the US

Several recent presidential elections serve as clear examples of retrospective voting.

Sometimes an election results in the incumbent president’s reelection, because he was seen as successful in getting most of his agenda adopted. Think Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 or Ronald Reagan’s win in 1984.

Another possibility is that the political party of a term-limited president is rewarded by voters for successfully delivering on a popular agenda. That helps to explain why Reagan was followed by the election of fellow Republican George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Voters might turn an incumbent out of office if they think that he didn’t accomplish enough during his term – like Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Another twist to this scenario is when the political party of a term-limited president is punished by voters for the incumbent’s unsuccessful performance. For example, Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 can be attributed to dissatisfaction with Barack Obama’s policies.

Prospective voters

By contrast, most Europeans tend to vote the opposite way from Americans, taking a “prospective” perspective.

European voters, like shoppers, tend to evaluate political parties in terms of which one is most likely to give them the most future prosperity. As political scientist Anthony Downs states, “each citizen casts his vote for the party he believes will provide him with more benefits than any other.”

Studies conducted by political scientist Martin Rosema at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and other scholars have examined why European countries are more likely to vote in this style.

They attribute this to the use of a parliamentary versus a presidential form of democracy. In multi-party democracies with parliamentary governments, elections are competitions between parties rather than specific candidates. Therefore, partisanship usually refers to a voter’s evaluation of the parties, rather than their identification with a single party or a specific candidate.

Considering the issues

There are two kinds of issues that are central to understanding how Americans vote.

First, there are issues on which all Americans typically share the same preference, like the state of the economy.