Learning about Voter Rationality

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled Learning about Voter Rationality”.AJPS Author Summary - Learning about Voter Rationality

Are voters up to the job democracy hands them? Building on a recent empirical literature in political science, many observers have concluded: no! (See here and here.) A key piece of evidence underlying this conclusion is what Ezra Klein describes as “the well-established finding that voters punish incumbents for bad weather and natural disaster.” Klein is referencing an empirical literature that claims incumbent electoral fortunes suffer following events outside their control, e.g., shark attacks and droughts, sports losses, and economic downturns. If “voters consistently and systematically punish incumbents for conditions beyond their control”—as Achen and Bartels argue in their influential book Democracy for Realists (p. 128)—how can democratic accountability possibly produce good governance?

Our paper takes on this voter-irrationality critique of democracy, arguing that it misinterprets the empirical findings. The fact that incumbent electoral fortunes systematically decline following disasters does not imply that voters irrationally punish incumbents for events outside their control. Instead, disasters (natural or economic) shape the opportunities voters have to learn about the quality of incumbent politicians. We show how this effect on learning can, on its own, account for the effect of disasters on electoral fortunes. No irrational punishment required.

An example from our paper illustrates the basics of the argument. Imagine a city with an incumbent mayor. Voters think the mayor probably is of higher quality than the available challengers. So, absent new information, they will reelect her.

The mayor handles emergency preparedness for hurricanes. High-quality mayors prepare well, while low-quality mayors do not. If there’s no hurricane, the voters don’t have the opportunity to learn anything new about the mayor’s quality—so they reelect her. But if a hurricane does come, the voters get to learn about preparedness. This hurricane-generated information affects voting. If the city was well prepared, the voters reelect the incumbent. But if the city was poorly prepared, the voters—quite rationally—conclude the mayor is low quality and vote for a challenger.

In our story, the voters don’t punish the mayor for the hurricane. They simply use the information provided by the hurricane to further assess the mayor. Sometimes they learn good news and sometimes they learn bad news. But because, in our example, the mayor started out ahead of potential challengers, only the bad news matters. The mayor’s susceptibility to downside risk makes new information, on its own, systematically harmful to her electoral fortunes.

Now imagine an empirical political scientist studying a bunch of cities, all described by our example. Some cities randomly get hurricanes, others don’t. Cities that don’t get a hurricane all reelect their mayors. But in the cities that do get a hurricane, some mayors prove themselves low quality and, thus, lose the election. Hence, the empiricist will find that hurricanes systematically harm incumbent electoral fortunes. We might want to conclude that voters irrationally punish incumbents. But that interpretation is wrong—voters are, instead, rationally selecting high quality candidates.

The example is very stark: voters learn the incumbent’s quality perfectly following a hurricane, voters have no other sources of information, the mayor doesn’t take any action, etc. In the paper, we provide a more nuanced and complete picture of the relationship between disasters, voter information, and incumbent electoral fortunes. Common intuitions are wrong. Quite generally, we should expect incumbent electoral fortunes to respond to disasters, even when voters are rational enough to not blame incumbents for events outside their control. Disasters affect voter information, and that matters for electoral outcomes.

Our paper is one piece of a literature taking on the voter-irrationality critique of democracy. We show that if electoral fortunes respond to natural disasters, that is not evidence of voter irrationality. Others question the evidentiary foundations and the purported implications for democracy. Careful empirical scrutiny shows that there most likely is not, in fact, any systematic empirical link between electoral fortunes and either shark attacks or sports losses. (Studies here and here.) And a variety of studies (here, here, here, and here) show that, even if voters are irrational, this need not be bad news for democratic performance. It is clear, then, that the voter-irrationality critique of democracy is at best premature and, at worst, unwarranted.

About the Authors: Scott Ashworth is a Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. Ethan Bueno de Mesquita is the Sydney Stein Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. Amanda Friedenberg is an Associate Professor of Economics, at the W. P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. Their article titled, “Learning about Voter Rationality” is now available in 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.