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What the Passover Story Teaches Us About Voting Behavior

Ancient Israelites and modern voters want to know what you've done for them lately.
(Photo: Several seconds/Flickr)

(Photo: Several seconds/Flickr)

Whether you celebrate Passover or not, you've probably heard something in the past week about Moses leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. It's a rich story, and in addition to all the important lessons it contains about freedom and faith, it also offers some valuable teachings about democracy.

No, neither ancient Egypt nor the government the ancient Israelites founded was anything close to what we'd consider a democracy today, but the Exodus story still shows us how citizens behave in challenging times. Specifically, they complain. A lot.

Studies have repeatedly and convincingly demonstrated that, by nearly any measure, the economy performs better under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents.

Just moments after being liberated from four centuries of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites express fear about starving and dying in the desert, suggesting that maybe they were better off as slaves: "Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert" (Exodus 14:12). Then, after they cross the Red Sea to safety, they can't find water for several days, and they start complaining to Moses (Exodus 15:24), so God gives them water. Then they can't find food, and they pine for the days when the pharaoh fed them, so then God gives them food (Exodus 16:2-3). Then once again the Israelites complain that they need water, and Moses pleads with God to provide relief and save him from being stoned to death by the angry mob (Exodus 17:2-4).

These are just some of the highlights! The whole story is really one of Moses and God working actual miracles on behalf of the Israelites, who are grateful one minute and angry the next. Yes, you freed us from centuries of bondage and drowned our oppressors, but that was days ago; what have you done for us lately?

This is actually a pretty good depiction of voting behavior. A great deal of political science research suggests that voters lean more on retrospective evaluations (how candidates and parties have behaved in the past) than on prospective evaluations (what those candidates and parties are promising for the future) when deciding how to vote. That is, what the candidates are promising to do when in office may be important (and a good predictor of how they'll actually behave if elected), but voters care far more about how those candidates and their parties have governed in the past.

More importantly, voters care about how parties and officeholders have governed in the very recent past. As a series of studies by Larry Bartels and Chris Achen have demonstrated:

[Voters] forget all about most previous experience with the incumbents and vote solely on how they feel about the most recent months. Knowing that, governments pander to the voters near election time, showering them with one-time benefits atypical of their performance in office.

For example, studies have repeatedly and convincingly demonstrated that, by nearly any measure, the United States economy performs better under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents. Yet we know that economic growth is by far the most important consideration in voters' minds when they vote. So why do Republicans win the presidency about half the time even if their presidents underperform on the economy? Because voters are focusing on what's happened just in the months leading up to the election, and there the economies under Republicans and Democrats are roughly the same.

Why did voters toss Democrats out of control of the Congress in 1946 despite a record of defeating both the Great Depression and the Axis powers? Why was the first President Bush denied re-election after successfully managing the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War and presiding over a decade of economic growth? It's all the same story—voters didn't like what had happened recently.

This isn't to just dismiss voters as a bunch of myopic ingrates. They're focused on real problems—jobs, economic security, war, starvation, and even thirst (in the case of the ancient Israelites). And by demanding action on these things, they generally keep their leaders aligned to what's important and keep them working on solutions. But messages reminding people how much better they are now than they were a few years ago will almost invariably fall on deaf ears.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.