It's the economy, stupid. James Carville coined that phrase for then-candidate Bill Clinton as a reminder of a truism of American politics: People vote their pocketbooks. When things are bad, they take it out on the party in power.
But is that really true? New research that examines data from the most dire period in American economic history—the Great Depression—suggests otherwise.
A fascinating survey conducted for the Herbert Hoover campaign in 1932 revealed Americans' decision to throw the Republican president out in favor of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was not primarily based on the miserable economic conditions.
"What loomed larger in 1932 was the issue of Prohibition," writes political scientist Helmut Norpoth of Stony Brook University. The outlawing of alcohol, which had been in place for 12 years, was widely unpopular. Hoover supported it, and—largely in response—the electorate rejected him.
Norpoth's paper, published in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics, is both a fascinating piece of American political history and a reminder that assumptions about what drives voters' electoral choices are often mistaken.
The original survey, which predates the Gallup Poll and "has languished in the archives" for 75 years, was conducted by J. David Houser and Associates. Its methodology was solid.
"A total of 5,235 respondents were interviewed in 14 metropolitan areas all over the country," Norpoth notes. "The selection was controlled to obtain an adequate sampling by sex, socioeconomic class, and urban-rural residence."
The report broke down the electorate into three groups: those who voted for Hoover in 1928 and planned to do so again; those who voted for Democrat Al Smith in 1928, and planned to stick with their party and vote for Roosevelt; and those who had voted for Hoover but were switching parties to support FDR.
That latter group was obviously key to the eventual outcome, and like Democrats who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, it's easy to assume their switch was driven by economic anxiety. Easy, and—in both cases—wrong.
"The Great Depression, it appears, was treated by many as a natural disaster," Norpoth writes. "Barely half of those voters who abandoned Hoover for FDR held the government at least somewhat responsible for the Depression." In their view, "Wall Street was by far the biggest culprit. The government was a minor offender."
But they wanted the government to do more to help, right? The survey suggests the answer is yes—but only to a point. It found strong support for the government to "spend more money for public improvements" (which FDR operationalized in a series of initiatives such as the Works Progress Administration).
But the idea that the government should "give money directly to the unemployed … elicited virtually no support," Norpoth writes. Unemployment insurance was, at that point, a radical concept. Besides, 80 percent of those swing voters felt the unemployment situation was gradually getting better.
That same huge percentage supported repeal of Prohibition, as did 90 percent of loyal Democrats. This put them at odds with Hoover, who was a staunch defender of the constitutional amendment. In contrast, FDR firmly endorsed repeal in his acceptance speech at the 1932 convention.
"Repeal of Prohibition was a simple matter that government could settle easily in line with popular sentiments," Norpoth concludes. "The Democrats took the lead on this issue in 1932, and were rewarded for it at the polls."
So the supposition that Hoover was thrown out of office by Americans who were angry about the Depression appears to be wrong. Are today's assumptions about what drives voter behavior similarly off-base? Is it possible that, while Washington is consumed by Trump's aberrant behavior, the public is more galvanized by issues like affordable health care?
A lot of Democratic Congressional candidates seem to think so. We'll know in November whether they were right.