Happiness and Voting: Evidence from Four Decades of Elections in Europe

FOTO CREDIT: Mohamed Hassan/pixabay.com

Ward, George (2019). Happiness and Voting: Evidence from Four Decades of Elections in Europe. In American Journal of Political Science. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12492.

In his recently published article in the American Journal of Political Science, George Ward suggests that it is necessary for politicians and researchers to look ‘beyond GDP’ to understand why and when citizens vote for sitting governments. Studies engaging with economic voting show that a good economy leads to higher chances of re-election. Ward now directs our attention to the influence of happiness in this context: Do high levels of national happiness enhance the probability of re-election of an incumbent government, and can individual well-being explain vote intentions? In the first part of the analysis, George Ward uses data of the Eurobarometer which includes data for the level of satisfaction with one’s life and the intended vote choice, for a sample of 139 elections in 15 European countries between 1973 and 2014. The results reveal a strong empirical link between the average level of happiness in a country and the vote share of the governing parties: the happier the population, the more likely a government gets re-elected. In the second part of the analysis the author considers the possibility that the subjective well-being coefficient might be driven by unobserved individual heterogeneity. Looking at long-term panel survey from Great Britain and Germany, Ward partials out time-invariant characteristics such as social class, family background and permanent personality traits and attitudes. He shows that individuals’ likelihood to vote for a sitting government increases as they become happier over time. In addition, the analysis includes both, the objective household income and the subjective evaluation of the financial situation, simultaneously. Notably, this reveals that in- or decreases in the actual household income are unrelated to support for the government once controlling for subjective well-being. Happiness is hence a stronger predictor for voting intentions and the electoral fate of sitting governments at general elections, than macroeconomic variables like economic growth, unemployment, or inflation.

Through his innovative research perspective, Ward highlights the explanatory power of subjective well-being for incumbent voting. He recommends to take this logic into account when studying other phenomena such as retrospective voting, political agency, and the effects of discrete emotions of voters and of politicians. I would have liked, though, to get a clearer explanation why subjective well-being compensates for the effect of the GDP on the government’s electoral success. Psychologists distinguish between pecuniary and nonpecuniary drivers of happiness, with other than financial factors being the most decisive (see e.g. Easterlin in PNAS 2003). Being satisfied with live hence depends on various factors beyond a good economy of the respondent’s country. In a next step it would be interesting to learn more about the reasons for the level of happiness and its link to the GDP, to identify the causal mechanism between satisfaction and incumbent voting.

By Joanna Hüffelmann in February 2020


Joanna Hüffelmann is a graduate student and research assistant at the Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Greifswald. Her research interests include the effects of participatory integration in democratic institutions, political behaviour and inequality in politics.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s