This is the second part of our
Pandemic Politics series (parts 1, 3, 4), in which we explore the effects of a pandemic in coronavirus elections. Here, we examine the received wisdom that the COVID-19 pandemic has been good for incumbent governments 1 , as well as examining if COVID-19 caseload has a significant impact on the swing in incumbent governments’ vote. x
As before, a caveat: the elections held in 2020 may not be a perfectly representative sample of all democracies.
2 Additionally, each electorate will have its own political peculiarities which affects the outcome; hence this should be taken as a ‘baseline’ of how voter behaviour has changed during the pandemic, instead of a conclusive “this is how pandemics have affected incumbent governments”. x Hypotheses on the impact of COVID-19 on incumbent governments’ vote
A few potential hypotheses on what we might expect to find:
No effect: COVID-19 may have been an issue in several elections, but on average the presence of COVID-19 (as well as the size of the COVID-19 caseload) has had relatively little effect, with each electorate’s political peculiarities instead taking precedence. (i.e. the null hypothesis) Positive: COVID-19 may have produced a “rally-around-the-flag” effect, where incumbents around the world get a boost from national crises as the population rallies around the government. Negative: On the other hand, COVID-19 may have exposed problems with healthcare systems around the world, producing a backlash against governing parties/coalitions as they struggle to deal with the first major pandemic in a decade. Antagonistic: In the elections held this year, the incumbent governments up for re-election may have been slated for a big swing to/against them, but COVID-19’s effects negated or reversed this swing. This can only be assessed using polling before/after the pandemic, which we plan to do in future Pandemic Politics pieces.
The criteria we used to decide which elections to include in this analysis:
Criteria for inclusion Elections were generally agreed to be fair and impartial, and held in nations with a Democracy Index >= 6 (if no DI available, author judgement is used) Election ended 11/March/2020 or later (the date WHO officially declared COVID19 a pandemic) The governing party/coalition must be reasonably apparent. The governing party/coalition remained relatively constant (i.e. if a component party switched coalitions, that election was excluded) Opposition or other significant parties (won >= 10% of vote at last fair election, if no fair elections author judgement is used) did not boycott election To minimise the impact of personality politics, legislative elections were used where possible, instead of executive elections. Election has to be a general election of all seats in the legislature, not a by-election. Where there were separate constituency and proportional elections held simultaneously, the results of the proportional election were used.
With all of the groundwork out of the way, let’s have a look at the data:
On average, the pandemic doesn’t appear to have had much impact on voters’ preferences for incumbent govts
(if you’re on a mobile device, scroll right for full data or turn your device landscape)
Nation/subdivision Region Swing Prev govt. 2020 govt. Date System South Korea Asia 7.86 25.5 33.36 04/15 PR Suriname South America -21.52 45.49 23.97 05/25 PR Saint Kitts and Nevis North America 5.92 48.93 54.85 06/05 Plurality Mongolia Asia -0.19 45.12 44.93 06/24 Plurality Anguilla North America -19.32 54.44 35.12 06/29 Mixed Croatia Europe 0.99 36.27 37.26 07/05 PR Dominican Republic North America -9.38 41.79 32.41 07/05 PR Singapore Asia -8.67 69.9 61.23 07/10 Plurality Basque Europe 1.34 37.36 38.7 07/12 PR Galicia Europe 0.4 47.56 47.96 07/12 PR Trinidad and Tobago North America -2.6 51.68 49.08 08/10 Plurality Northern Territory Oceania -2.77 42.2 39.43 08/22 Majoritarian Jamaica South America 6.99 50.08 57.07 09/03 Plurality New Brunswick North America 7.45 31.89 39.34 09/14 Plurality Sabah Asia -2.51 45.93 43.42 09/26 Plurality Bermuda North America 3.21 58.88 62.09 10/01 Plurality Vienna Europe 2.03 39.59 41.62 10/11 PR Lithuania Europe -4.38 22.45 18.07 10/11 PR Australian Capital Territory Oceania 2.6 48.7 51.3 10/17 PR New Zealand Oceania 13.12 36.89 50.01 10/17 PR Seychelles Africa 5.25 49.59 54.84 10/24 Mixed British Columbia North America 7.41 40.29 47.7 10/24 Plurality Azores Europe -7.29 46.43 39.14 10/25 PR Saskatchewan North America -1.41 62.53 61.12 10/26 Plurality Queensland Oceania 4.14 35.43 39.57 10/31 Majoritarian United States of America North America 0.81 46.09 46.9 11/03 Plurality Bihar Asia -4.67 41.9 37.23 11/07 Plurality Average -0.6 44.6 44
From the data, it seems like
hypotheses 2 and 3 (the pandemic having a positive/negative effect on incumbent governments’ vote) can be quite easily eliminated. On average, incumbent governments have done about as well during the pandemic as they have before it, with no evidence to suggest that the pandemic has boosted or hurt governments’ chances on net. 3 Graphing the swings in incumbent government vote seen this year, we can see that the change looks pretty similar to what you might expect if the pandemic had no impact at all: x Histogram of incumbent govt swings in pandemic elections, along with a t-distribution fitted using maximum-likelihood. Note that there appears to be little shift or skew to either side.
Of course, the reason the average/median govt vote swing is basically 0 might be that voters reward governments who managed to contain the pandemic, while ousting governments who are perceived to have failed to do so. If this is the case, we would expect to see a swing against governments in electorates with high caseload, while voters in electorates with low caseload would swing towards their government; however, there is no strong evidence for this.
COVID-19 caseload versus incumbent government swing Graph of COVID caseload per 1 million population versus incumbent govt vote swing, along with a linear regression fitted using ordinary least-squares. That massive outlier to the right is the USA.
As can be seen from a graph of incumbent govt swing vs COVID caseload, it appears that there doesn’t seem to be any strong correlation between a government’s performance on COVID-19 containment and its subsequent electoral performance. However, this may well have been an artifact of the massive outlier to the right (the USA), or an issue with electorates with small populations.
4 If we exclude the USA and electorates with a population of less than 1 million, we get the following graph: x Graph of COVID caseload per 1 million population versus incumbent govt vote swing, along with a linear regression fitted using ordinary least-squares. Outlier (USA) and electorates with a population of less than 1 million excluded.
With those outliers excluded, there’s a much stronger negative correlation between COVID-19 caseload and the swing to/from incumbent governments. However, examining the graph more closely, most of the correlation seems to be driven by a few points in the low-caseload (< 1000 / mil) and high-caseload regions (> 7000 / mil), as well the exclusion of some low-population electorates which had both very low caseloads as well as massive swings against the incumbent government (Anguilla and Suriname). This is reflected in the accompanying statistical analysis for the model, which concludes that there is very weak evidence for the hypothesis that increased COVID-19 caseload damages incumbent government vote.
5 x This does not mean that increasing COVID-19 caseload has no impact at all on incumbent governments’ performances, nor does it mean that incumbent governments who did well electorally must have controlled COVID-19 well.
The most plausible interpretation of this data is probably that COVID-19 may have a negative impact on incumbent governments’ vote; however the effect is not as large as might be naïvely assumed, and more evidence is required to demonstrate this.
Implications for electoral democracy
One of the reasons why
academics and most citizens believe some variant of participatory democracy produces the best outcomes for the nation (for now) is that democracy allows the populace to align a ruler’s incentives with that of the good of the nation, as broadly perceived by the populace. One would assume that, in a global pandemic, governments who have successfully kept COVID-19 caseloads low would be rewarded by voters, or at least that governments in nations with high COVID-19 caseloads would be ousted in landslides.
However, as the analysis above shows, evidence for the notion that high COVID-19 caseloads
costs incumbents re-election is mixed at best. While it’s plausible that some governments have made gains thanks to their successful pandemic response, as the first graph of caseload v swing shows, a government can successfully keep COVID-19 caseloads low and get ousted by the electorate (Anguilla 6 ) while a government with one of the highest COVID-19 caseloads x even as their neighbour successfully contained the virus nearly hangs on (USA).
Although there are definitely country-specific factors influencing each government’s vote swing, the inelasticity of such swings to their government’s objective performance on COVID-19 containment suggests that the incentives of democratically-elected governments may not be aligned with the good of the nation, reducing the effectiveness of democracy as a system of selecting governments. In particular, in many of the Western democracies which form the plurality of the data used here, due to
hyper-partisanship and ideological polarisation, landslide elections have become less likely, which suggests voters are less responsive to once game-changing events such as a devastating pandemic. We don’t pretend to have any easy solutions to this, although some voting reforms such as proportional representation may help voters to express their honest choice. Where to from here?
As the data above shows, there’s no evidence for the notion that the pandemic helped incumbent governments to stay in office across the world, and weak evidence for the theory that an effective COVID-19 response helped governments or that a poor response doomed them. However, as before, this does not inherently imply that COVID-19 had no effect at all on voter preference, or that an electorate will completely ignore a government’s COVID-19 response in its voting decisions.
While the data seems to fairly clearly refute hypotheses 2 and 3 (COVID-19 boosts/hurts incumbent governments respectively), it is entirely possible that a government was on track to lose or win much more narrowly in 2020 had it not been for COVID-19. A good example of this is New Zealand, whose major governing party (NZ Labour)
was fairly close in opinion polls to its main rival, the National Party for most of 2019, only to surge dramatically once it became clear that the nation had successfully contained COVID-19. 7 To examine hypothesis 4 (the idea that the govts up for re-election this year were slated for a big swing, but COVID-19’s electoral effects cancelled out that swing), we will be using polling to examine time-based changes in voting intention in future Pandemic Politics pieces for both x minor parties and incumbent governments.