One of the classic problems in understanding voter behavior is whether people vote with their wallets. Bascially, do voters make choices that depend heavily upon their own economic self-interest? Like almost any social science question you are never going to get 100% compliance with any idea. One can almost certainly find someone who calculates what is in it for them and votes accordingly. It is also even easier to find someone who doesn’t. As such over the years lots of work has been done on this topic. Here we go back a bit to see what Stanley Feldman said in 1984.
To Not Vote With Their Wallets Isn’t To Be Altrustic
First, I’ll note an idea that I think can get missed. It is important to understand that not caring about your own wallet is not necessarily altruistic. Of course, it is lovely if someone sacrifices for others but sometimes people abandon their own self-interest to hurt others. (That is my take on Brexit but enough of that unpleasant topic).
The classic argument from the left is that many relatively poor people vote in ways that don’t benefit them. This can reflect the voters’ cultural values. These cultural values may be altruistic, or not. We usually can’t even confidently say the vote wasn’t in the voters’ economic interest.
What Is In My Self-Interest?
A major problem is that to vote with your wallet you need to know what your wallet needs. This is not easy. Some (left-wing) commentators argue that ‘right-wing’ people might support policies that lead to economic contractions that hurt them despite thinking that this will be good for the economy and so help them financially. Other (right-wing) commentators argue that ‘left-wing’ people might vote for spending that seems generous towards them but could hobble the economy in the long-term hurting the voters who chose it. My point isn’t that either of these claims is self-evidently true, although either may be argued for. It is that voting for something you think will benefit you isn’t necessarily the same as voting for something that will benefit you. Economics is complex, we might think something is in our interests when it isn’t.
Methodologically this leads to a problem. Voters may not know their interests so asking them if they vote their best financial interests is of dubious value. (Given self-presentation concerns voters might not admit that they do anyhow). Alternatively, if you use secondary data to try and see if people vote for policies that do them good financially you won’t know what the voter was thinking. Maybe they didn’t vote their wallet? They could have voted for some other reason — say on a social issue — and it just happened to do well for them financially.
Voting With Their Wallets Seems Plausible
In 1984 Stanley Feldman did an analysis of whether people voted with their wallets.
Feldman (1984, page 229) says “That people act on the basis of changes in their personal economic well-being certainly provides a plausible (and possibly attractive) linkage mechanism” [between macro-economic conditions and voter behavior].
It won’t surprise you to know that things get more complex from there. There were methodological reasons to worry about prior work. I think it is generally interesting that methodological concerns tend to continue as methods get better. Improved methods often seem to give you something else to worry about rather than resolving any question.
What Is The Answer?
This being social science we don’t get any nice simple answer.
…the accumulated evidence very strongly suggests that vote choice and presidential elections are at best modestly influenced by personal economic considerations. This is not because people are incapable of acting in their own self-interest. When government policies have a direct impact on them and they attribute responsibility to the government, people do alter their evaluation accordingly.Feldman, 1984, page 248
This seems pretty reasonable. Basically, when government choices hit their wallet and they blame the government this can have an impact. This is far from the only thing happening though.
Read: Stanley Feldman (1984) Economic Self-Interest and the Vote: Evidence and Meaning, Political Bhevaior, 6,3, pages 229-251