The Surprising Benefits of Voting for Change

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Yves here. In the US, the idea that voting can change anything seems quaint. And independent of voting serving as a mechanism for registering discontent, most governments have moved to the right, which is what typically happens in the wake of financial crises that fail to produce meaningful reforms.

Another reason to be skeptical of this cheery view is the staggering decline in the competence of political leaders and appointees, along with professional bureaucrats. How many in the West rank as being impressive? I come up with Michel Barnier, Gary Gensler (badly underused at the SEC, he should be Secretary of Treasury) and perhaps Ireland’s Simon Coveney, who is at least canny. Perhaps readers can come up with some more names, but that’s an awfully short list.

By Benjamin Marx, Assistant Professor of Economics, Sciences Po; Vincent Pons, Associate Professor, Harvard Business School, and Faculty Research Fellow at NBER and CEPR; and Vincent Rollet, PhD student, MIT. Originally published at VoxEU

Voters often face a key choice between continuity and change. But does voting for change – voting incumbents out of office – deliver better livelihoods for citizens? This column uses data from national elections conducted worldwide since 1945 to show that electoral turnovers lead to improvements in governance, economic performance, and other measures of national performance over the subsequent years. These findings suggest that turnovers play a positive role by bringing in new leaders with better incentives to deliver tangible benefits for the electorate.

Across democracies worldwide, millions of voters are becoming more disillusioned with electoral politics. Many voters report in surveys that their voices are not being heard. Some are increasingly turning to political parties with radical populist platforms (Guiso et al. 2017). This voter resentment may be related to deteriorating living conditions in the West, especially the secular decline of manufacturing employment (Dorn and Levell 2022) and the rise of inequality (Piketty et al. 2017), all of which has resulted in a decline in trust in democratic institutions (Algan et al. 2017). Another factor may be the rise of mobile internet (Guriev et al. 2019), which has facilitated the spread of ‘alternative truths’ and allowed populist parties to thrive in many countries.

Yet another simple explanation might be that elections fail to deliver the improvement in economic livelihoods that voters are asking for. Many voters might feel that, after all, elections do not really matter for their welfare. We explore this hypothesis in a recent paper (Marx et al. 2022), where we compile a new dataset of national election results from around the world since 1945. Our main research question is simple: we ask whether ‘voting for change’, namely voting incumbent candidates or parties out of office, delivers improvements in governance, economic performance, and other measures of societal welfare.

This research question is central to the study of all elections. Short of staging a revolution, casting ballots against the incumbent is the only way under a democracy that citizens can change their national leadership. In the words of Adam Przeworski (1991), elections reflect the most fundamental characteristic of democratic systems – their ability to process social conflict and power transitions in a non-violent way.

Addressing this question raises a fundamental problem. National elections are not random events, and their outcomes correlate with a variety of underlying economic and social factors. In particular, incumbents who struggle to win re-election may have performed relatively poorly or faced particularly adverse economic circumstances (Brender and Drazen 2008). Other studies have shown that economic downturns combined with low levels of trust affect the likelihood of leader turnovers across countries (Nunn et al. 2018).

We therefore compare the performance of national economies after the close re-election of an incumbent candidate or party, relative to the close election of a challenger candidate or party. We use state-of-the-art regression discontinuity techniques to estimate the effect of electoral turnovers close to the regression discontinuity cut-off, i.e. for those elections where the opposition only narrowly edged out the incumbent candidate. In these cases, we show that the electoral outcome can be considered almost random.

Until now, close-election regression discontinuity techniques had almost exclusively been used to study local or regional elections (see Girardi 2020 for an exception). Our large dataset of presidential and parliamentary elections allows us to extend this approach to the national level and evaluate the impact of turnovers across a large sample of countries (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Electoral turnovers since 1945


We show that electoral turnovers improve the performance of countries along several dimensions. For example, an electoral defeat of the national incumbent candidate or party results in an improvement of 0.34 standard deviations in economic performance on average during the following four years. This is mainly driven by a relative decline in inflation and unemployment after the close election of a challenger. These effects are large in magnitude and materialise gradually over time: the boost in economic performance is largest three years after the close election of a challenger candidate or party.

Figure 2 provides a visual illustration of these effects, measured either across the four years following a national election (left-hand panel) or for each year in the subsequent electoral cycle (right-hand panel). We also estimate an improvement of 0.22 standard deviations in a general index of country performance combining economic indicators (GDP per capita, inflation, and unemployment), international trade, human development, and indicators of peace and democracy.

Figure 2 Effects of electoral turnovers on country performance

The effects of electoral turnovers are partly driven by turnovers in the executive branch. Electoral defeats of the incumbent mechanically result in a power transition under presidential systems, and they also lead to a significant jump in the likelihood of a power transition under parliamentary systems, as we show in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Effects of electoral turnovers on power transitions under parliamentary systems


Furthermore, turnovers matter more when the member of the executive appointed following the election holds more power, and when there are fewer institutional constraints on them. These effects are intuitive: weaker checks and balances and stronger executive powers vested in national leaders translate into more consequential electoral outcomes at the national level.

We provide additional evidence showing that the positive effects of electoral turnovers likely hold for elections further away from the regression discontinuity cut-off, namely elections that are less close. Using a method developed by Angrist and Rokkanen (2015), Figure 4 shows that the increase in economic performance resulting from a turnover also holds for elections won by a larger margin. Furthermore, we show that ‘unlucky incumbents’ who face close re-election battles as a result of a global oil shock perform no differently from other incumbents (Arezki et al. 2020). This suggests that the effects we find are not driven by the poor quality of incumbent candidates in our sample of close national elections.

Figure 4 Effects of turnovers on economic performance, away from the regression discontinuity cut-off

Overall, the effects we find are surprising since there are many reasons to expect that electoral turnovers could negatively affect a country’s performance – for example, by bringing to power less-experienced political leaders (Alt et al. 2011), by increasing policy uncertainty (Alesina et al. 1996), or by creating instability in bureaucratic personnel (Akhtari et al. 2022). Instead, our results suggest that turnovers improve leaders’ incentives to perform well and to deliver tangible benefits to their electorate.

Indeed, turnovers also improve the quality of governance and reduce (perceived) corruption, a standard measure of politician performance in the political economy literature (Ferraz and Finan 2011). A possible interpretation is that reputation and re-election concerns are likely more important for newcomers to political office, relative to long-serving incumbents (as in Ashworth 2005). The French have a phrase, ‘l’usure du pouvoir’ (‘the erosion of power’), which captures this intuition.

Our detailed data allow us to rule out a range of alternative explanations, most notably the possibility that electoral turnovers bring to power leaders with different characteristics. We show that, on average, challengers who win close national elections are no younger, no more left-wing, no more populist, and no less liberal than re-elected incumbents. In addition, the close election of a left-wing candidate or an illiberal candidate has no discernible impact on country performance, in sharp contrast with the large effects of electoral turnovers we observe in our data.

Previous research has shown that democratisation episodes tend to improve economic growth (Rodrik and Wacziarg 2005, Acemoglu et al. 2019). Our results offer some reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the long-term prospects of electoral democracy. Without regular turnovers in national leadership, societies can fall into institutional sclerosis and economic stagnation because they fail to implement disruptive policies, as Mancur Olson (1984) famously observed. Democracy, in its various forms, remains the only political system with a built-in mechanism to engineer frequent leader turnovers and policy change. As such, citizens would be ill-advised to do away with these systems in favour of more autocratic regimes.

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  1. ambrit

    Short and to the point?
    I have “form” as a cynical old gezer. I must admit to having been fooled in 2008. On ‘offer’ was “Hope and Change.” Alas, the Politico who ran on that platform is a Narcissist and Sociopath. My point; it all depends on who is being offered up for the job. The key word there is “offered.” Who decides, and for what ‘real’ purpose is the other ‘key.’
    A “voter’s strike” is not an option. Even if only three people cast votes, the candidate who garners two of those votes gets the job. The other 300 million Americans must then either live with that outcome, or revolt.
    I am not at present sanguine about America’s ‘chances’ in the near term future.
    Stay as safe as you can manage.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I suppose it all depends on what you mean by change. Its very easy to become very cynical about elections, but sometimes they do matter. You mention Simon Coveney as a competent politician – which is true (I know people who are not ideologically aligned, but have worked with him, and they were surprisingly positive about the experience). But then again, he is now embroiled in a very minor scandal which could prevent him rising any further. He is an interesting example of how dynastic politics can be positive – he is not a natural politician, but he comes from a political family so was more or less pushed into politics, and has proven better at it than the usual range of narcissists who push themselves into the public arena.

    Of course, sometimes electorates are their own worst enemies. In recent elections in South Korea and the Philippines people were given a genuine choice. And they made terrible choices, in both cases going for old style corrupt right wing politicians over genuinely talented and (relatively) less corrupt progressive alternatives. It could be argued of course that voting alternatives at regular intervals keeps politicians on their toes (which is probably the reason for the findings in the article), but if you keep making the wrong decisions, it will eventually come back to bite voters.

    But I do think that we are in an era of decadence with public institutions in the West. Its easy sometimes to look at the past with rose tinted glasses, but its impossible not to come to the conclusion that in the west at least, there has been a steady erosion of the quality of individuals at the highest levels in the public sphere (its not all that much better in Asia, but there are some good leaders, such as Joko Widodo). It is genuinely hard to think of more than a handful who are worthy of their posts in terms of either intellectual capacity or temperament, let alone political beliefs. Of course, its not just leaders who matter – the best leaders in the world struggle when the overall system is rotting. Its very difficult to build up robust and competent institutions from malfunctioning ones, but very easy to turn a competent institution into a dumpster fire (just ask the Tories).

    I suppose the key question is whether this is all a cycle, or a sign of the end times. Looking at US presidents, there seems to have been cycles of nonentities, alternating with small clusters of genuine giants. Maybe we’ll be lucky and the current crises will lead to a run of good leaders. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  3. Alice X

    I haven’t been deceived by a National Democrat since 1992, the last one I voted for. I recall it having been stated by Richard D. Wolff that the old Soviet Union had a higher Politboro delegate turnover than the US Congress.

    1. lance ringquist

      agreed. but the real problem happened in 1993, once that first free trade treaty went through that neutered government, and let corporations decide everything, its fascism of course, there can be no real change as long as the reach of oligarchs is world wide.

      keynes warned against it.

      i knew the french could not get rid of macron, his real support comes from all over the globe.

      you are watching finland commit suicide right now, it matters not who is in power in finland, its what the global oligarchs want.

      “nafta billy clinton basically created the davos man.

      “Globalism is the creation of a set of property rights that, precisely because they span multiple sovereignties, cannot be touched by one government without inviting conflict with another.

      Organizing property and production across borders—whether through free trade, protections for foreign investment, currency unions or other devices—does more than limit the power of governments. It also serves, “to dissolve the small, discrete collective of mutual identification—which means a country.”

      offshore tax havens are a direct result of free trade: the pathology of free trade is being exposed

      Today’s global rich are increasingly stateless, detaching their money from nation states and conventional representations of ownership to hide and preserve it. A global oligarchy is growing — and it does not bode well for everyone else and the planet.

      free trade enables the plundering of the wealth of nations, especially hurting the world’s most poor and vulnerable populations. It allows wealthy individuals and corporations to dodge and evade their tax responsibilities, shifting obligations onto those with fewer resources. It empowers criminals, deadbeats, and kleptocrats

      in 1983 there were only 15 billionaires in the u.s.a., under nafta billy clintons free trade, billionaires have ballooned into more than 615, and under free trade, this is happening globally

  4. Brooklin Bridge

    Touchy subject because we’ve been through such a ringer over the last two-five decades that the starting point that democracy, or representative government, is anything but an incredibly and deeply cynical farce is , like other forms of government, simply one more excruciatingly, out on the street without a dime painful and traumatic near proof that humans will always game what ever system they are in by and to the advantage of the few who have managed to wrest control.

    It’s like writing a system of laws and concluding that one is therefore lawful regardless of how corruptly they are interpreted and enforced.

    That the current crop of those in power are so incompetent, as Yves points out in the intro, strikes me as following an historical pattern that would be a far better point of departure for such a study than happy charts about financial felicity and it’s relation to democracy. Either that, inevitability of incompetence, or the speed and causality in which human governing systems consistently arc to their own collapse.

  5. Carla

    Electoral change in the U.S. means only change for the worse, at least in the U.S. That’s what the last 3-4 decades have taught me…

    1. chuck roast

      Indeed, and that brings us back to (almost) Richard Nixon. Imagine the trickster running today. Compared to the current crop of usual suspects he could be described as a thoughtful, circumspect kind of guy. Measure away, but the descent into political sclerosis has been steep and will be terminal.

    2. playon

      Since I came of voting age in 1972 I’ve been voting for the lesser of two evils, and in that time I have only seen things become more evil. It really took off to the dark side after Reagan’s election in 1980 and it’s been downhill ever since.

  6. John R Moffett

    Improvements in the economy hardly translate to better lives for working people. They just mean the rich get richer. This is a poor analysis of the “benefits” of a change from one party to another in my opinion.

    1. CanCyn

      JR Moffett – I couldn’t agree more. ‘Improvements’ need to benefit everyone, not just the wealthy. Any talk of the ‘benefits’ of election change is deficient if it doesn’t address corporate campaign financing and the obligations to be met for such financing. Not to mention the growing inequality in countries, I don’t see changes in government addressing that – except to make it worse.

    2. Jonathan King

      I lost interest at the outset when I read that the metric was to be the economic performance of national economies. The dichotomy between U.S. GDP and any humane definition of the national welfare is so vast, the researchers’ inclusion of “indicators” of human development, peace and democracy & whatnot couldn’t begin to compensate in our case or, I suspect, in (m)any others’.

    3. Susan the other

      My concern in a nutshell. When Putin posed the question (at Valdai, I think – paraphrasing here), Would you rather have good effective human and environmental rights laws, or would you prefer democratic dithering and theft? I immediately thought, I’ll take good legislation any day. But getting good legislation in a contentious and corrupt Congress is impossible. Democracy was once a viable method for governing. But everything has its shelf life. And to say, as above, that “turnover promotes economic growth” is meaningless – because economic growth is itself a problem now. What kind of growth? Nobody ever parses it out. To say as they do here that political turnovers improve leaders’ incentive to perform well is blatant nonsense since every candidate has an agenda paid for by a rich donor. Funny there was no mention of term limits. That might be as good an idea as contentious elections. We in the US have voted for change for decades and have only gotten crap; more of the same crap. I’m starting to believe that democracy is useless. And I’m wondering why we only ever mobilize for war. That is not a referendum by any definition – mobilization is an edict. Congress votes to go to war and everybody follows. If that falls under the definition of “democracy,” then why don’t we have mobilizations for other critical issues, like the environment or poverty or you name it. I think all the blabber about democracy is mostly a distraction.

      1. CanCyn

        !!This exactly: “I’m wondering why we only ever mobilize for war. That is not a referendum by any definition – mobilization is an edict. Congress votes to go to war and everybody follows.” But of course we do know the answer and we don’t really have to wonder … cold, hard cash. Profits, profits, profits. Lives don’t matter as long as Pelosi and her ilk can keep the Sub-Zero freezers stocked with expensive ice cream. What I wonder is how long it will take others to stop envying and wishing for Pelosi’s freezer and start agitating against these criminals. Voting for or against them does nothing for us plebs.

  7. Alyosha

    I’ve been primarily a foreign policy voter since I was allowed to start participating in 1992. I gave in to deep, raw cynicism by 1996. On the issue most important to me there has not been anything resembling change in the entirety of my adult life. Domestic (US) issues have experienced some change through elections, but I’m not sure I could point to a significant change for the better. I guess getting continually worse does count as “change” and at least it’s a form of change we can actually believe in?

  8. Glossolalia

    As much as I dislike his politics I’d put Mitch McConnell on the list of impressive politicians. Impressive in that he has been been outsmarting the Democrats for decades to advance the conservative political agenda in the US.

    1. playon

      I would say that the Democrats have willingly allowed themselves to be “outsmarted”. It’s a big game and both parties are in it together. There is a reason that the filibuster is left untouched even when Dems have a super-majority. Nobody is interested in rocking the boat when there is so much money to be made.

  9. Jack

    The big failing of this article is that it left out the impact of campaign financing. Before the corporations and banks owned all of the media it was possible I believe for an independent candidate to become known and possibly get elected. Independent meaning not completely beholden to the two major parties. Now, I don’t think it is possible for someone not granted access by business and the party leadership to get any sort of traction. Look at what happened to Bernie Sanders as a recent example. Money and big business have taken over our country and I don’t see anything short of armed revolution ending it. The elites control too many of the levers of power. As Michael Hudson states we do not live in a democracy anymore. I think voting still matters on the local level, but at the state and national level the decision is made before the election by virtue of the candidates the electorate is offered.

  10. Lexx

    We can’t change the system as it is or hope to change the system for the better with a cadre of politicians we hand picked and voted into office. When I knew deep in my gut that that was true, my mind took a Timothy Leary turn, but with different wording: turn off, tune out, unplug*, and drop in. Old age and COVID helped.

    Turn off your electronics, tune out the talking heads, untether from those who would negatively shape your reality, drop back into your own life and those of others. Share your produce, receive theirs, listen more and talk less. It seems to be working for me, this feels like a better path.

    *Pull the headjack from the back of your neck.

  11. Robin Kash

    The popular franchise and its exercise, voting, resemble nothing so much as a Potemkin village. Elected officials are widely subject to major donor capture. The “parties” are enforcers for the oligarchs. “Voting the rascals out” is easily countered by “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
    The plutocracy is global. Overturning it in hopes that voting will subsequently and actually make a difference will likely require resorting to the French revolution’s solution. Nominees, anyone, of exemplars to be escorted to the guillotine? Else, pass the cake.

  12. The Historian

    Interesting analysis by these economists. I grant you it has been a long time since I used any statistics and even longer since I took probability/statistics in college, but this statement has me confused:
    “We show that electoral turnovers improve the performance of countries along several dimensions. For example, an electoral defeat of the national incumbent candidate or party results in an improvement of 0.34 standard deviations in economic performance on average during the following four years. ”

    Unless I completely misunderstand the use of the standard deviation or if there is some new way of using it, doesn’t this statement mean that in reality, nothing much changes after elections?

    Could there be another solution to their data? Like maybe political parties are controlled by the same people so voting doesn’t really matter?

  13. The Rev Kev

    I’m going with the idea that the problem lay with what we call representative democracy. Not democracy itself but how we use representatives that we supposedly choose. It is blatantly obvious that these representatives in no way represent what we want but what certain interests want. That example of the $40 billion for the Ukraine and diddly squat for Americans really showed this to effect. The end result is that a lot of western countries are actually oligarchies. Wait – call it turnkey oligarchies. From the outside they look like democracies but to turn them into actual oligarchies would take very little effort as the machinery is all there. In the US for example, Homeland Security is not to keep the people safe but to keep the government safe from the people. Seems that we need a new form of democracy. One that is more localized with a form of voting that could empower more control over the machinery of government.

    1. Telee

      Michael Hudson often tells that the Greek philosopher saw that democracies have a strong tendency to transform themselves into oligarchies. We see the rentiers have financialized the society and make their riches at the expense of the of the real economy of goods and services while contributing little in the way of real value to the society. They are the ones who control the politics and policy. I trust that you have read the the preface to Michael Hudson’s latest book which is one of the topics of todays NC site.

  14. DanR

    One advantage of being open to voting for change, especially as a group, is that you can leverage your vote. If you are willing to vote the new candidate or different party, they get +1 vote and the old candidate or party gets -1 vote. If enough people or groups threaten to change their vote, the incumbent or party expecting their vote ought to take notice.

  15. ghiggler

    The theoretical argument is correct. As most have pointed out, the practical application is more problematic.

    Still, the argument should not be dismissed.

    Phrased curtly: if you throw the old crooks out, it takes three years for the nubes to turn into new crooks.

    During that time things get better as quantified by better “GDP per capita, inflation, and unemployment, international trade, human development, and indicators of peace and democracy” and as changes are made that “also improve the quality of governance and reduce (perceived) corruption.”

    The old crooks are a part of a system of favors, obligations, promises that freezes what can be done. They become an ever more closed political class, able and willing to ignore society in favor of their own political and economic associations.

    Jack and Robin Kash argue that armed revolution is necessary to change the system. I believe armed revolution seldom turns out well – using the ballot to remove incumbents is a significantly better way to change the system.

    Arguing about ideologies, beliefs, preferences, attitudes is all beside the point. Removing incumbents is the vital action. New policies don’t matter nearly as much as new people.

    Since the Republicans are clearly and literally delusional, voting out every Republican for at least one term would be ideal. Voting out every Democrat in the following term would then be necessary. The closer the US gets to this ideal the better things would be.

  16. anon y'mouse

    seems like a long way of saying “animal spirits” or whatever psychological means feeds both into higher support for a given politician and the perception of the “mandate”, and confidence that the economy will improve. ie “we threw the bums out and now we can stop worrying about that and get back to business, knowing our political business is in good hands”.

    dumbo’s feather, writ large and with much maths which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. i guess it’s always good to confirm these kinds of suppositions, though.

  17. Adam1

    We need a whole research effort to prove that the spoils go to the victor?

    If the incumbent wins the economy likely stays on it’s current path. However if the opponent wins things have to change. Even if the opponent is just as corrupt as the incumbent the inevitable spoils need to be redirected and that likely charts as economic activity. I mean we still have to keep up the appearances of be (wink wink) honest. And that appearance of honesty generates economic activity.

    In the US since the mid-1970’s the controlling parties have changed multiple times in Washington yet I would suspect most US nakedcapitalist readers would agree the nation has lost a lot of its real wealth even though GDP has been goosed by most changes in administration. I can’t see how that has done any real long term benefit to the average US voter. Although I will quote what others have noted… more American (qualified voters) chose to NOT vote for either Hillary or Donald Trump in 2016 that to vote for either of them. Yet data wise there was an uptick in economic activity when GOP Trump took over versus Democratic outgoing Obama. So we must all be better off right? Rinse and repeat your way to serfdom.

  18. Synoia

    Do votes cuse change?

    Or is it that in the US, only money causes change?

    We would be better represented if each vote for a candidate included a $100 bill, and a binding contract if the bill was accepted.

  19. David in Santa Cruz

    The authors appear to be bass-ackward in their correlations.

    Back in 2004’s Wealth and Democracy lapsed-Republican Kevin Phillips predicted that the sclerosis of the two-party syndicate would cause the voters to fall into a continuous cycle of “throw the bastards out.”

    Every time a new set of “bastards” comes into power, the rich get richer, because (as pointed out in comments above) economic “growth” has no tendency to trickle down. In an attempt to consolidate the change in regime, the “new guys” simply hand-out more pork and spoils to the already wealthy.

  20. Dave in Austin

    I have two problems with this article.

    First, it is biased in favor of Presidential systems with term limits.

    Second, the “A turnover results in improvement within four years” lives in a cyclical environment. Economic cycles mean bad times (and the ejection of an incumbent) are usually followed within four years by good times (which the new incumbent claims to have made possible).

    Of course sacrificing Presidents during bad times is better than sacrificing virgins when the crops fail. Hoover, Carter and soon Biden should be glad that they are just being thrown out of office and not being handed over to the priest with the obsidian knife.

  21. Adam Eran

    “I don’t care who people vote for as long as I can pick the candidates” – Boss Tweed

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