AJPS Early View: Electoral Ambiguity and Political Representation

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Electoral Ambiguity and Political Representation”. 

AJPS Early View: Electoral Ambiguity and Political RepresentationPoliticians often accuse their opponents of being vague: “In the fight against Islamism like anything else, [Emmanuel] Macron cultivates ambiguity” (François Fillon, April 20, 2017). Similarly, policy analysts frequently lament candidates’ lack of clarity: “Where benefit cuts are proposed, they are largely unspecified (Conservatives), vague (Liberal Democrats) or trivially small relative to the rhetoric being used (Labour)” (Institute for Fiscal Studies, April 28, 2015). Unsurprisingly, then, political scientists have long noted that politicians “are notoriously reluctant to take clear stands on the issues of the day” (Page, 1976 p.742) and “becloud their policies in a fog of ambiguity” (Downs, 1957).

But why are candidates’ campaign promises so imprecise? Previous research on the subject has typically taken a dim view of such behavior; existing theories rely on cognitive biases that prevent voters from correctly interpreting candidate ambiguity or voters simply preferring risky options to safe ones. In our forthcoming paper in the American Journal of Political Science, we argue instead that ambiguity is central to beneficial political representation even when voters are sophisticated and risk averse.

Our theory builds on the Downsian model of elections in which two candidates compete for office by committing to a policy platform. Candidates value holding office and have policy preferences that may differ from the (swing) voters’. We introduce an important twist to the traditional model. We assume that policy-relevant information is revealed to the elected politician after he takes office. This creates a demand for flexibility or discretion to better tailor policies to subsequent circumstances. Consequently, at the campaign stage, rather than promising a single policy, candidates generally propose a set of options: They are ambiguous about the policy they will eventually implement. Some ambiguity is beneficial to voters, but too much is undesirable, as it gives too much leeway to the elected official who has his own ideological preference.  While this tradeoff has been explored in other settings (e.g., the study of the bureaucracy), our contribution is to analyze it in the context of elections.

A key aspect of our article is to characterize exactly what candidates promise. We show that in policy domains where uncertainty about the appropriate policy is significant (e.g., economic issues), candidates’ platforms take a simple form: Candidates constrain how far they can move policies in the direction of their bias. That is, candidates reassure voters that their policies would not be too extreme without spelling out exactly what they will do if elected.  In our theory, campaign assurances resemble the U.K. Conservative party promising in 2015 to increase funding for the Department of Health by at least $8 billion (Nicholas Watt, April 10, 2015), Mitt Romney pledging in 2012 that his reform of social security would entail “no change for those at or near retirement” (Jeanne Sahadi, October 10, 2012), or Barack Obama guaranteeing in 2008 that “no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase” (Obama, 2008).

Our theory also speaks to voters’ ideal political representation and actual political representation. The greater the distance between (swing) voters and a candidate’s ideological preferences, the more restrictions voters would like to impose on his post-election policy choices. Voters thus seek a mixture of the delegate (no discretion) and trustee/Burkean (full discretion) models of political representation: closer to the delegate model when voters and the candidate are less aligned, and closer to the trustee models when they are more aligned.

A critical aspect of elections—rather than bureaucracy—is that candidates, not voters, propose platforms.  Does electoral competition adequately discipline candidates? Our results do not paint a very reassuring picture. Except in some special cases, the winning candidate is overly ambiguous from the voter’s perspective. That is, although the elected politician is not free to act entirely as he wishes, he is able to generate more policy bias than the voter finds optimal. The elected politician’s platform coincides with the voters’ preferred platform from that politician only when: (i) the politician’s policy preferences are fully aligned with voters’, or (ii) both candidates are quite extreme, or (iii) the two candidates are equally ideologically biased relative to voters.

We end with some other noteworthy implications of our article.

First, our theory rationalizes why electoral front-runners may be more vague about their intentions than their competitors, or relatedly, a positive correlation between electoral victors and their ambiguity.  Both ambiguity and electoral success are consequences of a candidate’s pre-existing electoral advantage. Theresa May’s decision to propose a shorter manifesto than her predecessor in the June 2017 British general election (Fraser Nelson, April 21, 2017) can thus be understood as stemming from her electoral advantage (Toby Helm, April 22, 2017).

Second, our theory provides some guidance for researchers interested in the link between elite political polarization (the difference in candidates’ preferences) and policy divergence (the difference in policies effectively implemented). In our theory, candidates typically do not propose the same platform or implement the same policies; rather, they simply commit to not being overly extreme in the direction of their bias.  When candidates’ preferences grow further apart (i.e., they become more extreme), they also tend to be less ambiguous. This has repercussions on their policy choices, which can never be too extreme. Consequently, as political polarization increases, policy divergence may decrease. This result suggests that, while widely used, policy divergence may not be an appropriate measure to recover the actual degree of polarization among politicians.

About the Authors: Navin Kartik is a Professor in the Department of Economics at Columbia University, Richard Van Weelden is ab Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago, and Stephane Wolton is an Assistant Professor in political science in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Their paper “Electoral Ambiguity and Political Representation” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.