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.

AJPS Author Summary: Do Rural Migrants Divide Ethnically in the City?

By Tariq Thachil

AJPS - Do Rural Migrants Divide Ethnically in the City?Across the globe, poor villagers are increasingly moving to cities. Yet we continue to know little about the political and social attitudes of burgeoning urban migrant populations. Do village-based ethnic identities continue to divide poor migrants in the city? Or are such differences obscured by shared poverty and class status?

Existing scholarly opinion is sharply divided. Classical theories of modernization expect migrants to quickly break ties with their parochial homelands, and adopt more modern attachments in cosmopolitan cities. Skeptics counter that intense competition between poor migrants for urban jobs and housing will harden ethnic divisions between them. Between these two poles lie arguments predicting intra-class ethnic divisions will neither be uniformly inconsequential nor entrenched. Instead, these divisions will be muted in contexts that trigger a shared identity among poor migrants, but remain salient otherwise.

This paper tests these disparate predications among a large sample of over 3000 poor migrants in urban India. Constructing a large sample of migrants is challenging, given they are mobile, lack fixed urban addresses, hold informal jobs, and circulate between village and city. To overcome these obstacles, I develop a unique worksite-based sampling strategy for surveying migrants at informal labor spot markets at which they assemble to find work.

A vignette-experiment embedded in this survey assesses the salience of intra-class ethnic divisions. Respondents were presented with three vignettes, each centered on a fictitious migrant, whose ethnicity was randomly varied. Respondents were asked to evaluate this migrant with respect to a specific type of interaction: competing with them for work, cooperating with them in sharing housing, and deciding whether to support them as an informal labor market leader. A fourth vignette assessed migrant support for a fictitious local candidate in a destination city election. To ground each vignette in the words and experiences of my informants, I drew on extensive ‘street-ethnography’ conducted at specific migrant labor markets.

Across these arenas, I find intra-class ethnic divisions are neither uniformly irrelevant nor uniformly salient. Instead, ethnic divisions are muted when migrants come into contact with urban political and economic elites who perceive and treat them in shared class terms. However, ethnic divisions remain highly salient when migrants interact away from this unifying elite presence. For example, migrants divide ethnically in their support for an informal migrant leader at their labor market, but not in their support for an urban political candidate.

Theoretically, the situationally variable salience of ethnicity cautions against sweeping portrayals of poor migrant communities as cosmopolitan utopias or hotbeds of ethnic strife. Instead, my study suggests these communities are open to both ethnic and class-based mobilizing strategies in the city. The comparative potential of the framework and findings presented here are aided by the fact that the conditions my informants face – poverty, informality, and spatial concentration into diverse worksites and settlements- are hardly unique to Indian cities. Yet much more must be done. Indeed, this paper concludes by calling for broadening our focus from nativist attitudes towards migrants to the understudied attitudes of migrants themselves.

About the Author: Tariq Thachil is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. His article, “Do Rural Migrants Divide Ethnically in the City?” in now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


AJPS Author Summary: How Do We Know Terrorism When We See It?

By Connor Huff and Joshua Kertzer

Charleston, South Carolina, USA - January 6, 2016: Memorial flowers placed at Emanuel AME Church.

On June 17th, 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine African American churchgoers at an Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with the intent of starting a race war throughout the United States. Following the shooting, FBI Director James Comey stated that the shooting in Charleston was not terrorism, asserting that “Terrorism is [an] act of violence…to try to influence a public body or citizenry, so it’s more of a political act. And again based on what I know so far I don’t see it as a political act.” His assessment was condemned from across the political spectrum, from critics on both the left (including then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and former Attorney General Eric Holder) and right (including then GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum). Similar public debates have erupted followed other violent incidents, including the bombing at the Boston Marathon and shooting in Orlando, Florida. These debates not only highlight the contentiousness of classifying terrorism, but also the stakes involved in doing so, for policymakers, academics, and members of the public alike.

In our forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science, we turn to experimental methods to explain the tenor of these public debates. We investigate terrorism in a public opinion context not because we believe that the mass public’s intuitions can necessarily resolve normative debates about what should or should not be considered terrorism, but rather because of the central role that public opinion plays in our understanding of how terrorism works. In a vast array of prior research, terrorism is understood as a form of violence that functions by attracting public attention. It is because terrorism hinges on public reaction that Margaret Thatcher suggested terrorists depend on “the oxygen of publicity,” that Carlo Pisacane declared terrorism to be “propaganda by deed,” and that Ayman al-Zawahiri suggested that for al-Qaeda, media coverage is “more than half” the battle.  If the responses of ordinary citizens thus constitute a central means through which terrorism operates, it logically follows that understanding what ordinary citizens think terrorism is is a crucial prerequisite to understanding how they react to it.


AJPS Early View - How the Public Defines TerrorismOur approach is a simple one. First, we field a conjoint experiment on 1400 American adults, the results of which show how ordinary citizens classify terrorism based not only on relatively objective facts on the ground, but also on fairly subjective considerations about the perpetrator. On the one hand, considerations about the type and severity of violence matter—though interestingly, not the distinction between civilian and military targets that plays a central role in contemporary legal definitions.  On the other hand, our respondents are also heavily influenced by relatively subjective descriptions about the perpetrator’s identity and motivations, considerations about which the media has considerable latitude in the language it uses to cover incidents. In this sense, because actions do not always speak louder than words, the media has considerable power based on how it chooses to frame incidents.

We then demonstrate the implications of our typology using machine learning techniques, allowing us to (i) code a range of prior incidents that have occurred in the real world to predict the likelihood that individuals will classify each event as terrorism, and (ii) exploit the subjectivity of many of these coding decisions to show how we can construct a number of different, equally plausible narratives about the same event, leading to sizable differences in the likelihood individuals will understand the event as terrorism or not.

For example, using predictive models derived from our experimental results, we show how the estimated likelihood Americans will classify incidents with the characteristics of the attacks in San Bernardino, California, for example, can vary from around 30% to 82%, depending on the narrative constructed about the perpetrators’ identity and motivations (were they acting alone, or does pledging allegiance to ISIS in a Facebook post constitute foreign ties? Were they motivated by political goals, or was the motivation behind the shooting unclear? Is a family history of mental illness sufficient to conclude that mental illness played a role in this attack as well? How relevant is the attackers’ religion?) In doing so we empirically demonstrate the ways in which terrorism can be socially constructed.

About the Authors: Connor Huff is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University and Joshua D. Kertzer is Assistant Professor of Government at Harvard University. Their article, “How the Public Defines Terrorism” in now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


Author Summary: Disloyal Brokers and Weak Parties

By Lucas M. Novaes 

AJPS - Disloyal Brokers and Weak PartiesMost parties in the developing world are weak. Even after more than three decades after the Third Wave of Democratization, many parties still lack partisans, stable local outposts, or a clear policy platform. To understand why parties are fragile, I conduct an analysis of one fundamental piece of the party machinery, the political broker, and hypothesize that when they act as free agents parties are electorally fragile.

Parties may not have means to establish a connection to voters, but in many places parties can “hire” community organizers, ethnic chiefs, local bureaucrats, neighborhood leaders, patrons, caciques, local politicians, and other notables to act as brokers and close the gap between party politicians and voters. Throughout the years, these agents cultivate a private and non-partisan network of voters which they can influence, or a module of individuals that can be electorally mobilized to vote or not for a particular party. Parties can give these notables resources, money, or nominations, and in exchange receive an entire constituency supporting party candidates at the election day. Thus, even without direct linkages to voters, politicians running for offices above the local level can acquire enough votes to win the election by building a modular party with modules of several different brokers.

The problem of the modular party is that brokers can be disloyal. Since modules and brokers are non-partisans, and there may be more than one party that needs brokers to mobilize voters, agents are free to switch allegiances whenever they receive a more profitable proposal for the brokerage they perform. The article shows that broker disloyalty undermines party performance. Using the fragmented Brazilian party system as testing ground, I find that disloyalty in the form of party switching of mayoral candidates, who act as brokers for party candidates, causes parties to receive less votes for their deputies. Natural experiments and an unexpected, temporary institutional reform that discouraged disloyalty for brokers demonstrate this relationship.

The results stress that studying brokers is important to understand why parties in the developing world remain weak. How can parties establish a brand, invest in party organization, or create partisans when their point of contact to voters may change parties, and offer a bloc of former supporters to the competition? Making disloyalty less advantageous to brokers may be a necessary first step towards building strong parties.

About the Author: Lucas M. Novaes is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France. Novaes’ article “Disloyal Brokers and Weak Parties” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

The Legacy of Political Violence across Generations

By Noam Lupu and Leonid Peisakhin

AJPS - The Legacy of Political Violence across GenerationsPolitical violence has profound political and psychological effects on its victims. Under some circumstances, victims withdraw from politics, but in other settings they seem to become more politically active. In our study, we ask what effect violence has on victims’ descendants, who themselves were not subject to political persecution.

We come at this question by studying the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority that currently resides in Crimea. In May 1944, Soviet authorities summarily deported Crimean Tatars to Central Asia. Like other Soviet deportations, the lengthy journey to Central Asia was grueling for all and deadly for many. Overall, 20-46% of the whole Crimean Tatar community perished either in transit or during the first year in exile. Most of those who perished died from illness and malnutrition. The Crimean Tatars were finally permitted to start returning to their ancestral homes in Crimea in 1989, and almost all have returned.

Our paper studies the effect that the loss of family members during the deportation has on the descendants of the survivors. In late 2014, we interviewed three generations of respondents in 300 Crimean Tatar families. Our survey includes 300 survivors who experienced the deportation, 600 of their children who were born in exile, and 1,004 of their grandchildren who themselves had no direct experience of the Soviet state. Because all Crimean Tatar families had been deported but some lost more relatives than others, we are able to estimate the impact of additional family deaths on the grandchildren’s political identities, attitudes, and behaviors.

We find that with each additional death in the survivor generation, grandchildren tend to identify more strongly as Crimean Tatar and as victims, and they are more likely to perceive Russia as a threat. The young Crimean Tatars who come from more victimized families are more likely to participate in politics. Interestingly, they were more likely to vote in the referendum in early 2014 on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and in the local elections later that year. However, they turned out in order to express their opposition to Russia by voting against the annexation and against Russia’s ruling party.

We find that what is transmitted across generations is identities—victim identity, a heightened threat perception, and strong in-group attachment. Once engrained through family socialization (sometimes through direct conversations about the family’s experiences), these core attitudes shape responses to political events and motivate behaviors such as political participation or choices at the voting booth.

Our study demonstrates that victim identities are extremely persistent and can be transmitted within families across at least three generations. At least some of the strong anti-Russian sentiment among younger Crimean Tatars today is a direct result of Soviet-era victimization of their ancestors some 80 years ago. These results help to explain why reconciliation between victims’ descendants and perpetrators’ successors is often so elusive.

About the Authors: Noam Lupu is Associate Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University; Leonid Peisakhin is Assistant Professor of Political Science at New York University – Abu Dhabi. Their article “The Legacy of Political Violence across Generations” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Who voted (and didn’t) for Hitler, and why?

AJPS Author Summary By Jörg L. Spenkuch and Philipp Tillmann

Few historical events have been more consequential and, therefore, more scrutinized than the failure of Germany’s first democracy and Adolf Hitler’s ensuing rise to power. Even contemporaries had known that support for the Nazis was by no means uniform. At the height of the World Economic Crisis, majority Catholic regions remained strongholds of democratic parties, while voters in predominantly Protestant areas abandoned their traditional allegiances and flocked toward the NSDAP.

Elite Influence? Religion and the Electoral Success of the Nazis

Our analysis confirms that religion is the single most important empirical predictor of NSDAP vote shares. In fact, constituencies’ religious composition explains a greater share of the geographic variation in Nazi vote shares than all other available variables, either individually or combined.

Why did the NSDAP perform poorly in Catholic regions? Did the party’s agricultural policies hold little appeal to farmers? Were majority Protestant constituencies more likely to back the Nazis because they were hit harder by the economic depression? Or, did, as Hitler himself believed, ordinary Catholics refrain from supporting the Nazis because they were instructed to do so by the clergy?

In the last phase of the Weimar Republic, nobody of public standing opposed the Nazis more vehemently than the Catholic Church and its dignitaries. We provide direct evidence in support of the idea that the Church’s influence contributed to the resistance of ordinary Catholics. To do so, we draw on a novel data set that allows us to geographically locate members of the clergy who ignored the directives of their bishops and instead openly sympathized with the Nazis. We show that Catholics and Protestants voted much more alike in settings where such a “brown priest” directly contradicted the Church’s official warnings about the dangers of National Socialism. We further find that after the Catholic bishops gave up their opposition and took a position that was favorable to Hitler, parishioners’ relative resistance crumbled as well.

At the same time, we show that attempts by the clergy to immunize Catholics against the radical left failed to achieve the desired result. To explain the puzzling asymmetry in the Church’s influence at the ballot box, we develop a simple theoretical framework of elite influence in electoral politics, which also offers some lessons for dealing with radicalized electorates today.

About the Authors: Jörg L. Spenkuch is an Assistant Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences at Northwestern University, and Philipp Tillmann is an Associate at Analysis Group. Their article “Elite Influence? Religion and the Electoral Success of the Nazis” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Making Washington Work: Legislative Entrepreneurship and the Personal Vote from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression

By Charles Finocchiaro and Scott A. MacKenzie

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled  “Making Washington Work: Legislative Entrepreneurship and the Personal Vote from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression”.

The modern Congress is often characterized as an institution comprised of legislators motivated primarily by the desire to be reelected.  Much scholarship documents the ways in which senators and representatives cultivate a “personal vote”— relationships with constituents based on accessibility and trust rather than partisan or ideological affinity—in pursuit of this goal.  These tools range from the franking privilege, which is used to advertise their names and services, to plum committee assignments that allow them to build reputations for attending to constituents’ interests.  Another tool in the congressional arsenal is bill sponsorship, which unlike roll-call votes, is unencumbered by limits on floor time, committee access, etc.

Making Washington Work: Legislative Entrepreneurship and the Personal Vote from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression

While research on the modern Congress has a great deal to say about the incentives that drive the institution both internally and with respect to the broader electoral and political landscape, much of what we know is constrained by the relative stability of several factors that give rise to the electoral connection.  For example, the candidate-centered electoral politics of the post-World War II era offers little variation in the electoral rules governing elections, with nearly all members of Congress elected via direct primaries and general election contests that use official ballots that voters cast in secret.

In this article, we leverage the variation in electoral rules and other contextual factors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to explore bill introduction patterns in the pre-modern U.S. House of Representatives.  Focusing on bill introductions in the pre-modern House is particularly useful because of the extent to which private claims that today are referred to legislative staff and the bureaucracy spilled onto the legislative agenda.  In addition to addressing pressing national challenges, bill introductions were used to resolve the individual concerns of Civil War pensioners and others.  Thus, bill introductions in the pre-modern House offer a more complete picture of members’ time and resource allocation.

Our analysis employs original data on more than 417,000 House bills introduced from 1881 to 1931 and illuminates the various factors driving bill sponsorship in this era.  Much like their modern counterparts, members of the pre-modern House with prominent positions of institutional power and greater political experience introduce more policy-oriented bills dealing with salient national issues. Across a range of issue areas, the characteristics of members’ constituencies also influence the number and type of bills they introduce.

Of primary interest to us, however, is the finding that two major reforms to the electoral system—the Australian (secret) ballot and the nominating primary—are crucial in explaining the uptick in private bills serving individual constituents and public works legislation targeting local constituencies.  We believe that these findings shed light on the origins of many behavioral hallmarks of the modern Congress and address debates over its institutional development and performance.  In particular, they highlight the importance of these two reforms in shaping the legislative orientation of Congress, and with it, the nature of contemporary representation.

About the Authors: Charles Finocchiaro is an Associate Professor in the Carl Albert Center and the Department of Political Science at University of Oklahoma, and Scott A. MacKenzie is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of California, Davis. Their article “Making Washington Work: Legislative Entrepreneurship and the Personal Vote from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

No Need to Watch: How the Effects of Partisan Media Can Spread via Interpersonal Discussions

By James N. Druckman, Matthew S. Levendusky, and Audrey McLain

No Need to Watch: How the Effects of Partisan Media Can Spread via Interpersonal DiscussionsMedia in the U.S. has changed. Over the last quarter-century, there has been a proliferation of media outlets, as well as a rise in partisan media—outlets that eschew journalistic norms of objectivity and present a particular partisan/ideological viewpoint on the news. Today’s citizens are not limited to just mainstream news, but can watch Fox News, MSNBC, listen to talk radio, or visit a wide number of partisan websites.

At first glance, it might seem like the influence of these websites would be quite limited. After all, their audience is quite modest: most estimates suggest that no more than 10-15 percent of the population regularly consume partisan media (of any sort). So even if they matter to their audience (and prior evidence suggests that they do), their limited reach suggests that their overall effect will be small.

But we argue that this view is too limited. Those who consume partisan media can spread its effects via inter-personal discussion. So if I watch partisan media, and then talk to my parents, the effect of me watching can spread to them. This is an example of the canonical two-step communication flow model, which posits that media may affect a small group of watchers who then, in turn, pass that influence along to non-watchers via inter-personal discussion. We update this idea for the partisan media age, and argue that the same principle explains why interpersonal communication amplifies the power of partisan media outlets.

We test this general prediction via a laboratory experiment. In the experiment, subjects were randomly assigned to two factors: to either watch partisan media (or not), and to discuss the issues raised in their partisan media segments (the debate over expanding oil/natural gas drilling in the U.S.) or not. So our experiment allows us to compare four groups of individuals: those who neither watch partisan media nor discuss the issue (the control), those who simply watch partisan media, those who discuss the issue in small groups, but do not themselves watch any partisan media, and finally those who both watch partisan media and discuss it.

Our experiments show clear evidence of a two-step communication flow – those who did not watch partisan media but talked with those who did end up holding opinions that resemble those who watched. Indeed, we show that discussion (especially in partisan homogeneous groups) can produce effects that are even larger than just watching these outlets. This highlights that discussion can not just transmit partisan media messages, but it can also amplify them. While the extent to which these processes occur outside the laboratory is not clear, what is clear is there is a strong potential that partisan media effects may extend well beyond its viewership. Interpersonal discussion—and social networks more generally—help to spread and amplify partisan media’s messages.

About the Authors: James N. Druckman is Payson S. Wild Professor (also Associated Director, Institute for Policy Research) at Northwestern University, Matthew S. Levendusky is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania, and Audrey McLain is at Temple University. Their article “No Need to Watch: How the Effects of Partisan Media Can Spread via Interpersonal Discussions” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

AJPS Author Summary – How Do Interest Groups Seek Access to Committees?

By Alexander Fouirnaies and Andrew B. Hall

Americans worry a lot about money in politics. Because corporations and other interest groups are disproportionately wealthy, and because they can donate to political campaigns, they may be able to influence policy in unfair ways. Despite this concern, a long literature in political science has struggled to pin down how this influence actually works, failing to find any obvious correlations between donations and policy outcomes. Moreover, the total amounts of money that corporations donate—while large, compared to the average American’s income—are small relative to their operating budgets, and do not seem large enough to sway elections systematically. What are interest groups getting in exchange for their contributions?

The idea in our paper, building on previous research, is to tackle this question indirectly. It’s too hard to try to locate the precise policy concessions that each interest group is looking for; these can be quite specific and won’t necessarily show up in aggregate measures of policy. Instead, we look at where interest groups deploy their political money. We ask: what do the patterns of interest-group contributions tell us about what these donors think they are getting out of the process?

To study this question, we compiled a new dataset on the committee positions of all state legislators (1988–2014), which we combine with electoral data and data on campaign contributions at the state level. We use the new data to explore which state legislators interest groups target with their money and why. First, we show that when legislators join a committee that oversees an interest group’s business interests, the group responds by donating more money to that legislator, on average. Interest groups do not only channel money to their allies in the legislature, but they donate to members who obtain legislative influence over relevant policies. This is consistent with patterns previously found in donations to members of the U.S. House and Senate.

If interest groups care about committee service, as our first results suggests, then they should also care about which legislators get assigned to which committees. In the second part of the paper, we use the data to look at whether interest groups also seek to influence the committee assignment process itself. We find that when a legislator takes over the job of assigning committees—usually by becoming the majority-party leader—she receives a substantial boost in contributions from interest groups. We take a number of steps to try to isolate this boost, and show that it is directly motivated by the committee assignment process and not just the general desire for interest groups to donate to legislative leaders. The evidence therefore suggests that interest groups are highly sophisticated in how they deploy their money. They not only support influential members involved in their area of business, but they even seek out legislators with procedural power who can affect policy indirectly. Although it is very difficult to establish direct effects of interest-group money on policy outcomes, the sophisticated patterns by which they donate their money strongly suggests they believe the money helps them attain their goals.

Separate from these findings, the paper also offers a new dataset on state legislative committee assignments, merged with electoral and campaign finance data, that will be freely available to researchers for future use. We believe that U.S. state politics is an under-appreciated research topic. State politics is incredibly important in setting many of the policies that Americans care moHow Do Interest Groups Seek Access to Committees?st about. Moreover, the 50 states offer researchers an incredible array of information about legislative politics, more generally. We hope that our paper will encourage more researchers to consider the U.S. states as a useful set of cases for more general analysis about democratic politics, interest groups, campaign finance, and more.

About the Authors: Alexander Fouirnaies is an Assistant Professor of Political Economy at Harris School, University of Chicago and Andrew B. Hall is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Their article “How Do Interest Groups Seek Access to Committees?” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

AJPS Author Summary: When Are Agenda Setters Valuable?

In the following blog post, the author summarizes the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “When Are Agenda Setters Valuable?“:

AJPS Early View - When Are Agenda Setters ValuableIt is well known that firms and industry organizations contribute significant amounts to legislative campaigns in the U.S. However, most studies fail to show that these contributions affect how legislators behave. Why do industries donate money to legislative campaigns when roll-call votes suggest that donors gain nothing in return?

In the paper “When Are Agenda Setters Valuable?”, I argue that corporate donors may shape policy outcomes by influencing powerful agenda setters in the early stages of lawmaking. On the basis of a new dataset of more than 45,000 individual state-legislator sessions (1988- 2012), I document how agenda control is deemed valuable to legislators and groups seeking influence on public policy.

Employing a difference-in-differences design, I assess the revealed price, as measured by campaign contributions, that firms are willing to pay for access to committee and party leaders and document how this price varies across industries and institutions. The basic idea is to compare a legislator’s donations before and after he attains a committee- or party-leader position while washing out general trends in contributions in the chamber.

The results indicate that agenda-setting powers are very valuable. On average, a party-leader position causes almost a 40% increase in contributions, and this effect is even stronger in chambers where leaders are endowed with significant procedural powers.

Attaining a committee-chair position approximately leads to a 20% increase in contributions, and the effect is primarily driven by donations from industries that are regulated by the committee.

Moreover, the value of attaining committee- and party-leader positions has grown dramatically and more than doubled in recent years.

Finally, exploiting changes in state laws, I show that relaxing contribution limits significantly benefits committee chairs and party leaders more so than it does other legislators, suggesting that agenda setters have strong incentives to obstruct restrictive campaign finance reforms.

The results have implications for our interpretation of the literature on money in American politics. For obvious reasons, roll-calls are only recorded for bills that reach the floor, and if, as the results in this paper may suggest, committee and party leaders prevent certain bills from reaching the floor in exchange for contributions, the existing literature has systematically underestimated the influence of campaign donations on public policy in American politics.

About the Author: Alexander Fouirnaies is an Assistant Professor of Political Economy at Harris School, University of Chicago. Fouirnaies’ article “When Are Agenda Setters Valuable?” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 



The Editor of the AJPS is at Michigan State University and the Editorial Office is supported by
the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the School of Social Sciences.

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