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. 



Political Brokers: Partisans or Agents? Evidence from the Mexican Teacher’s Union

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Political Brokers: Partisans or Agents? Evidence from the Mexican Teacher’s Union“.

Political Brokers: Partisans or Agents? Evidence from the Mexican Teacher's UnionIn many developing countries, politicians and political parties rely on political brokers as crucial intermediaries with voters. However, we have little understanding of the drivers of brokers’ effort.

This paper theorizes that there are two main drivers of such effort. First, parties often rely on monitoring to either sanction brokers who shirk or reward those who effectively mobilize voters. Second, even absent monitoring, brokers may be motivated to mobilize voters due to a partisan attachment originating from ideological ties or personal material interests in the success of the party.

We use the Mexican National Educational Workers Union (SNTE), the largest union in Latin America to highlight the implications of our theory. There is widespread anecdotal evidence that the SNTE operates as a political machine, using thousands of teachers as political brokers to mobilize voters to support aligned candidates. SNTE’s efficacy as a political machine may originate from both the historical attachment of its members to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and from the control its leaders exerted over teachers via incentives and monitoring. This makes it an ideal organization to test the implications of our theory.

We first estimate the electoral impact of the SNTE machine on electoral outcomes. To that end, we use variation over time in the alliances between the SNTE leadership and different parties for specific offices. Starting in 2005 the SNTE created its own party – the New Alliance Party (PANAL) – putting forward its own candidates for congressional and presidential elections. However, for the presidential races–in which the PANAL stands no chance of success–it has unofficially forged alliances with other parties, exchanging the mobilization efforts of its teachers for political influence and other rents. Second, we also exploit variation in the location of polling stations–particularly, whether they are located in schools–since this facilitates the role of teachers as political brokers in various ways.

We find that precinct-level vote aggregates are more likely to reflect the SNTE’s political alliances whenever the polling station is located in a school. We show that these estimates capture the role of teachers as political brokers and rule out alternative explanations driven by possibly confounding characteristics of voters or polling stations located in schools.

Next, we explore the different drivers of SNTE’s efficacy as an electoral machine. First, we find no evidence that an additional polling station in a precinct, which facilitates the ability of the SNTE to monitor the efforts of its teachers, affects our estimates of the SNTE’s electoral impact. This suggests that monitoring is unlikely to explain the effectiveness of SNTE teachers as political brokers. Second, we find no electoral impact of the SNTE in 2006 when the SNTE supported the presidential candidate of the National Action Party, a party with which teachers have never shared any attachment. Thus, our results point to partisan attachment as a critical driver of broker’s effort in the particular case of the SNTE.

Understanding the ultimate drivers of brokers’ efforts is essential to appreciating the electoral impact of various political machines as well as their importance over time. For example, it may help explain the survival and persistent strength of political machines that are traditionally attached to particular parties, even in contexts where those parties lose incumbency. Despite gaining access to resources to incentivize political brokers, newly elected parties may find it very hard to co-opt or gain their support if the brokers have traditionally been attached to other parties.

About the Authors: Horacio Larreguy is an Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University, Cesar E. Montiel Olea is graduate student in the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, Columbia University, and Pablo Querubín is Assistant Professor of Politics and Economics at New York University. Their research “Political Brokers: Partisans or Agents? Evidence from the Mexican Teacher’s Union” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.



AJPS Author Summary: The Election Monitor’s Curse

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “The Election Monitor’s Curse”.AJPS Early View - The Election Monitor's Curse

Election monitoring has become a key instrument of democracy promotion in the developing world. In places where political institutions are too weak to ensure a transparent and credible election process, monitors are expected to deter election fraud and mitigate the risk of post-election violence. However, post-election protests and conflicts tend to occur more often when monitors do what they are supposed to do — identify and publicize election fraud. Does this mean that election monitoring fails at its most essential task?

We conducted a systematic theoretical analysis of this question that suggests a negative answer. We argue that election monitors face a fundamental curse: they can make all elections less fraudulent and more peaceful on average, but only by causing more violence in fraudulent elections. Thus, increased protests and violence after elections criticized by monitors indicates that election monitoring works exactly as we should expect. Fraud-exposure increases the risk of violence, but because of this increased risk of violence, fewer incumbents are willing to commit fraud, and, consequently, fewer election losers resort to post-election violence.

Due to this curse, election monitors can successfully promote a self-enforcing democracy only if they have very specifically aligned objectives. In contrast to conventional wisdom, our findings indicate that being indifferent towards post-election violence can make monitors more effective at preventing it. Moreover, monitors that are moderately biased against the government can be perceived as more credible than monitors who try to be politically impartial. Election monitors with well-aligned objectives will be able to commit to causing a few conflicts and thereby will prevent many, whereas monitors with mis-aligned objectives will not cause conflicts, but will also not prevent them.

About the Authors: Zhaotian Luo is a Graduate Student at New York University and Arturas Rozenas is Assistant Professor of Politics at New York University. Their article “The Election Monitor’s Curse” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


AJPS Author Summary – Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global Wrongs

In the following blog post, the author summarizes the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global Wrongs”.

Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global WrongsMany people – inside and outside academia – believe that democratically made laws have a special claim to moral authority. The fact that a law is traceable to democratic procedures that give an equal vote to each citizen means that disobeying it is failing to respect the equality of our fellow citizens. Therefore, we should normally follow the directives of such a law even when we disagree with its substance.

In my American Journal of Political Science article, “Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global Wrongs,” I explore a fundamental but overlooked puzzle about this conception of democratic authority. The puzzle begins from the firm judgement that even a government that keeps democratic procedures intact loses its general authority, if it enacts abhorrent major laws. This judgement means that the moral failure of some laws can dissolve the moral authority of other laws – even ones that are quite distinct in their content. But how can we explain these systemic effects of specific laws? I confront this challenge by introducing a global perspective into the discussion of political authority. I begin by suggesting that we should only adopt an account of systemic effects that can explain how the worst global conduct dissolves a government’s general authority. And, after developing such an account, I use it to reflect on thornier global cases.

The argument I construct connects to ongoing political events in at least two ways. First, my account of the systemic effects of flawed laws puts center-stage the ubiquitous phenomenon of abuse of elected office. To give just a few current examples from around the world, accusations regarding abuse of democratic power are hovering above the entire political class in Brazil, including the country’s President; such accusations have already led to the impeachment of South Korea’s President; similar accusations may very well lead to criminal proceedings against Israel’s Prime Minister; and – last but not least – may also lead to impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States. My argument builds on our convictions regarding such abuses of office, to advance our thinking about the systemic implications of democratic laws that are profoundly morally flawed: I contend that we should think about such laws too as an abuse of political power.

Second, in considering the moral implications of laws that bear most immediately on outsiders rather than on citizens, my argument also explains why deeply troubling laws and policies that have received enormous public attention actually warrant this attention. The recent travel ban pursued by the Trump administration, clearly targeted to prevent the entry of Muslims into the United States, is perhaps the most obvious example. The claims I defend suggest that policies of this sort have wide-ranging repercussions for the Trump administration’s moral claim to authority, notwithstanding whatever democratic credentials it may have. But similar repercussions follow for any other administration around the world whose laws and policies blatantly mistreat outsiders.

About the Author: Shmuel Nili is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of the Social Sciences (School of Philosophy) and, starting in September 2017, he will be an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.  Nili’s article “Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global Wrongs” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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.


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.

  Michigan State University