Partisan Blame-Shifting and Multi-level systems: Evaluating Responsibility Attributions Under Conditions of ambigious government in the German Federal System


When do voters blame their governments for wanting (economic) performance? And how do personal characteristics and institutional context interact to shape this process of responsibility attribution? And most importantly, how do individual characteristics and institutional context interact in the formation responsibility attributions? This question is far from trivial, especially in federal systems such as Germany, where voters must evaluate not only if the government is responsible or not, but must also which level of government is most relevant.

But while the literature on economic voting has become increasingly sophisticated in identifying individual and institutional factors shaping responsibility judgements, there is still surprisingly little work on the interaction between individual and contextual factors. This paper aims to bridge this divide by focusing on three key drivers of responsibility assessments: Partisanship, reduced clarity of responsibility, and the problem of second-order elections in federal systems. Specifically, by focusing on relative responsibility attribution, the paper explores at which level of government responsibility is assigned, and how partisanship and government configurations influence this process.

Using a newly constructed data-set, the paper exploits variations in Germany’s state and national governments to show that institutional ambiguity enables partisan blame shifting. However, the results also show that there are limits to such partisanship, since even partisans recognize the importance of national over state level politics.