Can Voters' Happiness Tell Us Who Will Win the Election?
Recent research helps explain voting patterns.
Posted September 28, 2020
A growing list of countries is tracking the happiness, or satisfaction with life, of their citizens. In fact, many statistical agencies have years or decades of data about life satisfaction. A recent trend is to start making policy based on the science of well-being.
But in a society in which policies are supposed to be making people happier, it is natural to ask how people's happiness affects their view of the governments in charge of those policies. In particular, what can we say about election outcomes based on knowing how happy people are?
Who goes to the polls — unhappy people, happy people, or both? Do happy people vote for incumbents? A recent World Happiness Report chapter summarizes a number of recent studies on such questions.
Recall from my other columns that when economists talk about "happiness," we're actually interested in overall satisfaction with life, which is more of a cognitive evaluation than a feeling of momentary joy.
Let's start with a key message for the politicians among you: You might want to start paying more attention to the life satisfaction of your constituents.
You probably already know that governments have a better chance of being elected if the economy is doing well. But a study covering 15 countries over four decades found that if you want to predict how people will vote, you would do twice as well looking at people's life satisfaction as you would by measuring the rate of economic growth.
This finding is backed up by a 2017 study looking at voters in the UK. The study tracks individuals' life satisfaction over many years. People are more likely to support keeping a party in power when life feels more satisfying, overall. This study controls for differences across individuals, and even for their changing financial circumstances.
Also important for anyone hoping to get re-elected is that happier people are more likely to get out and vote. This is confirmed by separate studies looking at the USA, China, and the U.K. Happy people are also more likely to contribute to political campaigns with money and time. These correlations should not come as a surprise, given that positive mental well-being is predictive of outgoing and pro-social behaviour in general.
What about predicting whom voters are likely to choose? It turns out that individual and district happiness both also matter for the fortunes of populist candidates and populist issues. In particular, unhappy voters were more likely to vote for Marine Le Pen in France, for Brexit in the UK, and for Trump in the USA.
What does all this mean for November in the USA? All else equal, unhappy voters are more likely to vote for populist leaders, but more likely to vote for incumbents. They are also less likely to vote at all. Life is hard this year, and some people may be more down on life than usual, but that does not point in a clear direction for the Presidential election.
There is still much that is not know about this topic. For instance, are unhappy voters more likely to vote for populists because they believe populist policies will help them? Or is it the case that populist politicians tend to stir up and exaggerate voters' fear and pessimism, making certain people both less happy and more likely to vote for the solutions they claim to offer?
In 2020, many sources of anxiety and stress are at play in any election, including in the highly polarized USA. Above all, we can hope that whoever wins will tap into what we already know about how policy can make for better lives.
George Ward, Chapter 5, World Happiness Report 2019, https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/happiness-and-voting-behavior/
George Ward, "Happiness and Voting: Evidence from Four Decades of Elections in Europe", American Journal of Political Science, 2019, Volume 64, Issue 3, https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12492
Liberini, F., Redoano, M., & Proto, E. (2017). "Happy voters". Journal of Public Economics, 146, 41-57.