Sleeping with the Enemy: Effective Representation under Dynamic Electoral Competition

The forthcoming article “Sleeping with the Enemy: Effective Representation under Dynamic Electoral Competition” by Anderson Frey, Gabriel López-Moctezuma and Sergio Montero is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Growing discontent with democratic politics in recent years has revitalized research into the signs and origins of well-functioning democracy.  Democratic stability, scholars have long argued, largely depends on voters finding acceptable alternatives at the polls.  When political parties pursue unconventional electoral strategies or compete for voters on non-programmatic grounds (e.g., through vote-buying or clientelism) effective representation and the link between elections, public policy, and government accountability may be threatened, fueling distrust of democratic institutions. 

Electoral coalitions between ideologically incompatible parties constitute a stark example of such unconventional strategies.  They pose a puzzle: if competition is fundamentally based on contrasting coherent policy agendas and values, what do parties on opposite ends of the ideology spectrum have to gain from joining forces against more centrist rivals?  

Consider the case of Mexico.  For almost its entire democratic history, the three main contenders in elections at all levels of government have been the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the National Action Party (PAN).  Voters and experts widely agree that, at the federal level, PRD and PAN are respectively located to the left and right of PRI on the ideology spectrum.  Yet, since the 1990s, PAN and PRD have nominated common candidates against PRI in several subnational elections. 

Given Mexico’s well-documented history of electoral fraud, vote-buying, and clientelism, it is tempting to conclude that PAN-PRD coalitions reveal a dilution of party brands at the local level and electoral competition based on the distribution of political favors rather than on well-defined policy preferences.  However, using a regression discontinuity design (RDD) on close elections, we demonstrate that Mexican mayors enact policies 

that are consistent with their party’s ideology.  Furthermore, we find that coalition and non-coalition mayors from the same party are indistinguishable with regard to policy choices, which rules out policy compromises as a cornerstone of the PAN-PRD alliance. 

To understand the implications of seemingly unconventional electoral strategies, we argue that parties’ and voters’ dynamic considerations must take center stage.  We propose and estimate a model of dynamic electoral competition that allows for strategic coordination by way of common candidate nominations.  In our model, holding office over time enables the incumbent party to (potentially) build an electoral advantage.  Opposition parties and voters then face a stark dynamic tradeoff: a short-term ideology compromise, via an electoral coalition, offers the opportunity to remove the incumbent from office, deplete its electoral advantage, and thus level the playing field in the future.  This tradeoff provides a rationale for coalition formation in elections previously unrecognized in the literature. 

We estimate our model using data from Mexican municipal elections between 1995-2016.  In line with our RDD evidence, we report structural estimates of Mexican parties’ policy preferences at the municipal level, which coincide with their national profiles.  More importantly, we show through counterfactual experiments that the PAN-PRD alliance has served as an instrument of democratic consolidation, opening the door to effective electoral competition.  Our results should shed light on recent similar attempts worldwide to oust populist leaders. 

About the Author(s): Anderson Frey is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of Rochester, Gabriel López-Moctezuma is Assistant Professor, Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at California Institute of Technology and Sergio Montero is Assistant Professor, Departments of Political Science and Economics at University of Rochester. Their research “Sleeping with the Enemy: Effective Representation under Dynamic Electoral Competition” 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.