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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Why is it that so many politicians seem unwilling to alter their policy positions, even when available information suggests that their current position may not be in the best interest of voters? Is it personal stubbornness? Pressure from interest groups?

A recent study using game theory has determined that it may be something in the dynamics of the election itself that spurs this behavior. Specifically, researchers theorize that politicians may remain ideologically rigid because the majority voters want assurance that the politicians share the voters’ leanings. In short, elected officials may act in certain ways to curry voters’ favor—even when the officials’ actions are not in voters’ best elections, game theory, information, votinterests – while what voters really want is for politicians to act wisely in response to new information. The study also teases out the subtle fact that the less voters know about both politicians’ true preferences and the facts that drive certain policy decisions, the more pressure there is on politicians to ignore policy-relevant information.

“Voters make judgments about politicians based on the kinds of decisions those officials make––like going to war, setting immigration policy, and so forth,” says coauthor Ken Shotts, associate professor of political economy. “In an uncertain world, voters use politicians’ decisions as a basis for predicting their future policy-making behavior.”

Given that voters assume past actions are predictive, they make their reelection decisions based on incumbents’ past policy decisions. “Say a president goes to war,” says Shotts. “You may reelect him just based on that yes or no decision. Or you may reelect him based on the outcome of the decision––whether the war went well or badly. The fact that voters often make electoral decisions based on the actions of incumbents gives incumbents incentives to do more of certain things and less of others.”

In an ideal world, an incumbent will make decisions based on the available information, some of which may not be known to the voter. “The president, for example, may have secret information indicating whether it’s good to go to war or not,” explains Shotts, who developed the model with coauthor Brandice Canes-Wrone, PHD ’98, who is now an associate professor at Princeton. “The moderate voter ideally wants the president to do what’s right for the voter based on that data.”

But the big finding of the paper is that it is surprisingly difficult for that to happen. “If voters want incumbents to make decisions about going to war based on available information, they should reward the incumbent by reelecting him after successful wars, but not unsuccessful ones. Also, they should not reelect the incumbent when he failed to go to war but should have, and they should reelect him when he avoids a war that would not have been a good idea.”

Due to the uncertainties of the real world and the complexities of most issues, however, voters don’t do that. Rather, they tend to vote along ideological lines. “Even if the war goes badly, as long as it’s in line with the voter’s general leanings––hawk versus dove, in this case––they’ll reward the incumbent by voting for him or her.”

Canes-Wrone and Shotts’s model shows that by rewarding incumbents for their ideological position rather than for making wise decisions based on available data, voters in fact encourage politicians to be ideologically rigid. According to Shotts, this perverse little dynamic is, in part, inevitable whenever conflicts of interests can arise between decision makers and those who elect or appoint them––from the Oval Office to the boardroom. But, fortunately, the harmful effects can be mitigated when voters, or shareholders, are well informed about the preferences of elected decision makers as well as about the country’s or the firm’s interests.

—Marguerite Rigoglioso


  • “Leadership and Pandering: A Theory of Executive Policymaking.” Brandice Canes-Wrone, Michael C. Herron, and Kenneth W. Shotts, American Journal of Political Science, July 2001.
  • “Government Transparency and Policymaking,” Justin Fox, Public Choice, April 2007.
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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Does an Effective Media Reduce Politicians’ Incentives to Pander to Voters?
  2. Voters Prefer Candidates Who Share Their Looks
  3. Incumbents Thrive When the Home Team Wins

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