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Retrospective vs prospective

Retrospective vs. Prospective Voting

2 min read
Retrospective vs prospective Politics Team · Apr 19, 2024

Retrospective and prospective voting are two concepts that help explain electoral behavior. Each one describes a certain approach that a voter might take when deciding who to vote for on election day.

In essence, retrospective voting involves the voter basing their decision at the ballot box on previous events. Prospective voting, on the other hand, involves the voter basing their decision on their predictions for the future. One method has the voter looking back, while the other has the voter looking forward.

Below, we’ll walk through the ins and outs of retrospective and prospective voting, and then compare and contrast the two concepts with one another.

Retrospective Voting, Explained

Think of a retrospective vote as a job evaluation or performance review of an employee. A retrospective voter is voting based on the past performance of the candidate.

In this perspective, elections serve as mechanisms of political accountability. The voter might think back to previous election cycles, and consider whether a certain politician ended up making good on their campaign promises. The voter might also think about the actions a politician took during their previous term in office, plus the impact of those decisions on the voter’s life.

The Economy and Electoral Behavior

The economy traditionally ranks among the top factors voters consider when assessing the performance of an incumbent candidate — especially with regard to presidential elections or the overall performance of political parties. Metrics such as unemployment, inflation, consumer confidence, and household income provide convenient criteria for candidate evaluation.

Incumbent presidents or other office holders tend to benefit from a healthy economy during their term. Voters often punish, or “fire,” them when inflation, unemployment, and economic hardships rise. These voting strategies are intended to promote political accountability for incumbents and the government in general. They may inspire future policy considerations for improving the economy, whether the incumbent candidate wins reelection or not.

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The Effect of Disasters on Voter Decision-Making

An assessment of a candidate’s track record can go beyond pocketbook issues. Increasingly, voters consider incumbents' response to disasters in their assessment of candidate competence. 

A study published in the National Library of Medicine postulates that a rise in COVID-19 cases may have cost Donald Trump his 2020 reelection bid. While Trump began the 2020 election season with a narrow path to victory, the impact of the pandemic contributed significantly to his defeat.

The response of government officials to disasters have influenced election dynamics throughout 21st century elections. 

For example, observers credited New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's acceptance and at least tacit approval of President Barack Obama's handling of “Super Storm Sandy” in October 2012 as influential in Obama's re-election a few weeks later. By contrast, slow responses by the George W. Bush Administration to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to a more negative incumbent assessment for Bush and may have hampered the Republican Party's chances of staying in the White House after 2008.

Assessing Incumbents in Local Government 

Political accountability mechanisms have a different focus in municipal and county-level elections. In contrast to federal and state governmental bodies, local governments have less authority and less broad responsibilities. This generally limits the issues voters can assess to issues that are unique to the locality.

Local races emphasize the responsiveness and effectiveness of county, parish, and municipal governments in providing services to citizens. Many local governments provide utilities, collect waste, maintain streets and sidewalks, run libraries, and operate golf courses and other recreational facilities. Voter satisfaction metrics involve response times to calls (emergency and otherwise), fees for services, conditions of roads and sidewalks, and effectiveness in abating dangerous or nuisance conditions.

Local office holders may even have a single function or specific group of responsibilities, further simplifying voters’ considerations at the ballot box. For an elected district attorney, for example, a voter might look back at the conviction rates facilitated during the incumbent’s term. Voter decision-making for school board incumbents may turn on test scores, graduation rates, teacher quality or retention, and the condition of school buildings and facilities. 

The Concept Behind Prospective Voting

A prospective voter engages in forward-looking voting behavior. With an emphasis on predicting a candidate's future performance in office, the voter relies heavily upon the candidate's statements in speeches, campaign advertisements, and campaign literature. Essentially, prospective voters want to know how the candidate will likely perform in the future.

Prospective voters can rely on factors such as a candidate’s experience, qualifications, and campaign promises. This style of voting can be somewhat subjective, as each voter might have a different vision of the candidate’s future performance.

Prospective Voting and Identity Politics

Many political science concepts come into play with prospective voting. The term “identity politics” describes voters’ predictions that candidates in their own demographic will better advocate for their priorities and interests. Demographic categories can include race, gender, level of education, age, parental status, veteran status, economic standing, religion, and geography (rural, suburban, or urban) – or some combination thereof. 

The use of demographic information may coincide with issue-based voting behavior, another characteristic of forward-looking voting behavior.

Anticipating Future Behavior

In addition to a candidate’s demographic information and their stances on key issues, prospective voters might also consider a candidate’s qualifications. Like job applicants applying for a job, candidates often let voters know about their education, job experience, honors, volunteer experience, and more.

Candidates running for judicial offices might emphasize the following areas of their background:

  • Years in private practice as an attorney or service in a prosecutor's office

  • Published cases

  • Memberships in bar associations

Endorsements from professional organizations (such as bar associations) and newspapers can help bolster voters’ perception of a candidate's likelihood of effectively performing the duties of the office. Candidates for attorney general, district attorney, or governor seek and announce endorsements from law enforcement associations.

Retrospective vs. Prospective: Differences and Motivations

The primary difference between retrospective and prospective voter decision-making lies in the type of information the voter uses for candidate evaluation. Retrospective voting represents voting based on past performance. Metrics and information about past performance are often quantifiable.

Retrospective voting strategies can involve the review of:

  • Voting records, especially whether the incumbent voted or acted as promised in their previous campaign

  • News accounts or publications of economic performance, crime statistics, poverty rates, and other statistics showing conditions nationwide, statewide, or within a locality

  • A voter’s observations of how incumbent politicians’ decisions have impacted their communities

As with prospective voting, there is a certain degree of subjectivity at play here. Voters who deem journalists biased or otherwise untrustworthy may approach retrospective voting differently than those who trust media reports. Party loyalists may also discount media reports that are unfavorable to their party's candidates.

Retrospective voting mainly applies to incumbents. However, voters also use retrospective voting when they vote against a candidate or party, whether or not an incumbent is running for reelection. For example, if the previous president was a Democrat, and a voter is unsatisfied with that president’s performance, they may decide to vote for a Republican candidate in the next election — even if a different Democratic candidate is on the ballot. This phenomenon can be understood as part of the coattail effect.

By contrast, voters can engage equally in forward-looking voter behavior, whether they are assessing an incumbent or a challenger.

Newcomers to political office cannot link safe streets, good schools, or a robust economy to their own past voting records or actions. To appeal to prospective voters, both newcomers and incumbents must charm their audience with future promises and policy considerations.

Examples of Retrospective and Prospective Voting

Past elections have offered glimpses into these political science concepts. Here are a couple notable examples:

George H.W. Bush and the 1992 Presidential Election

The failed reelection effort of the 41st President reflects the impact of different voter behaviors.

Following victory in the Persian Gulf War, George H.W. Bush had a job approval rating of 89%. At that point, that was the highest presidential job approval rating recorded. If the next election had happened right then, prospective voters may have judged the incumbent president favorably. However, an economic decline followed. By July 16, 1992, when Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination, Bush’s job approval rating had fallen to 29%. In November, Bush lost the presidential election to Clinton.

The 1992 election cycle reflects voters’ responses to past performance and future promises. Retrospective voters took into account Bush’s job performance during his term as president. Some took note of Bush’s failure to uphold the “no new taxes” pledge he had made during the 1988 presidential election. Prospective voters looked ahead, to the ways they envisioned both Bush and Clinton carrying out the next presidential term.

The Overturning of Roe v. Wade and Issue Politics

For those using forward-looking voting strategies, a single issue may dominate their rationale for voting for one candidate or another. According to a Gallup poll taken after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, 28 percent of women between 18 and 49 indicated they will vote only for pro-choice candidates. This reflects a significant concern of these voters over the loss of abortion rights.

The abortion issue represents one example where demographics intersect with a controversial issue. Retrospective voters can look back at politicians’ past support for or rejection of specific policies, while prospective voters can decide who to vote for based on different candidates’ campaign promises related to abortion.

Make Your Vote Count

Whether based on candidates’ past or future behavior, every vote makes a difference in national and local elections.

Want to learn more about how you can make your vote count in upcoming elections? Explore more resources related to elections and election reform here.

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By Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.