Expectation Setting and Retrospective Voting

Expectation Setting and Retrospective Voting

By
Neil Malhotra, Yotam Margalit
Journal of Politics. October
2014, Vol. 76, Issue 4, Pages 1000–1016

That citizens engage in retrospective voting is widely established in the literature. But to what extent is retrospection affected by the expectations that leaders set in advance? We develop a theoretical framework of how expectation setting affects voters’ retrospective evaluations of incumbent performance. To test the theory, we conduct a series of between-subjects experiments in which we independently manipulate both expectation setting and the eventual outcome. In domains where politicians have practical authority, or direct influence over outcomes, setting high expectations incurs a cost in public support if the projected outcome is not attained. The same is true in domains where politicians have theoretical authority, or limited influence, but where expectation setting sends a signal about the leader’s judgment. However, in domains where politicians have neither practical nor theoretical authority, setting high expectations is unambiguously beneficial, implying that optimism is valued by voters as a personality disposition.