Martin Bisgaard

Perceiving the Unobservable: How Partisanship and Everyday Life Influence Citizens' Perceptions of the National Economy

This dissertation advances existing knowledge on public opinion formation and democratic accountability by examining how party identification and everyday experiences influence citizens’ thinking about the national economy. The state of the national economy is often portrayed as an important determinant of election outcomes; as a clear instance of how voters are in fact capable of holding the incumbent accountable. But little is known about how citizens perceive and interpret the national economy. What is worse, existing work suggests that citizens’ economic perceptions are often mere rationalizations for whether their party is in office. Through a series of studies exploiting administrative data, panel data and randomized experiments from different national contexts, this dissertation shows that although citizens appear to rationalize their perceptions of the economy these rationalizations are highly dependent on how party elites talk about reality. What is more, citizens are often surprisingly responsive to new information about the economy as well as cues stemming from their immediate residential settings. Citizens do appear to change their economic perceptions when the facts on the ground unfold. But is this good news for democracy? Not necessarily. As this dissertation also shows, when citizens update their perceptions of the national economy, they conversely apportion credit and blame for these changes in a highly selective fashion. Citizens appear to find other ways of aligning their party loyalties with economic realities. This dissertation will be of interest to all who care about public opinion formation, retrospective voting and the prospects for democratic accountability.

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