All politics is local. Some politics is random.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about randomised trials lately, and have come across a paper that I had previously only heard rumours about. In 2001, NYU political science professor Leonard Wantchekon managed to persuade four African political candidates to randomly alter their campaign strategies. Quoting from his paper:

The strategy consists of a unique field experiment organized in the context of the first round of the March 2001 presidential elections in Benin and in which randomly selected villages were exposed to “purely” clientelist and “purely” public policy platforms. The experiment is unique in the sense that it involves real presidential candidates competing in real elections.To the best of my knowledge, it is the first ever nationwide experimental study of voter behavior involving real candidates using experimental platforms. A number of questions are considered. Given ethnic affiliation, does the type of message (clientelist or public policy) have an effect on voting behavior? Is clientelism always a winning strategy? Which types of message give incumbents or opposition a comparative advantage?

Once the selection of the villages was complete, the different types of campaigns were designed with the active collaboration of the parties’ campaign managers. It was decided that any public policy platform would raise issues pertaining to national unity and peace, eradicating corruption, alleviating poverty, developing agriculture and industry, protecting the rights of women and children, developing rural credit, providing access to the judicial system, protecting the environment, and/or fostering educational reforms. A clientelist message, by contrast, would take the form of a specific promise to the village, for example, for government patronage jobs or local public goods, such as establishing a new local university or providing financial support for local fishermen or cotton producers. Thus, the public policy message and the clientelist message would stress the same issues such as education, infrastructures development, and health care. But they would differ in that the former stressed the issue as part of a national program, or projet de société, while the latter stressed the issue as a specific project to transfer government resources to the region or the village.

As you might imagine, Benin’s voters like pork as much as in any other country.

The empirical results show that clientelism works for all types of candidates but particularly well for regional and incumbent candidates. The results indicate that women voters have stronger preference for public goods than do men and that younger and older voters have similar policy preferences. I argue that credibility of clientelist appeals and accessibility of
clientelist goods greatly influence voting behavior.

What’s fascinating about this study is that the candidates agreed to it, which I assume is because they were genuinely unsure as to which type of message was most effective. Assuming this is right, it’s also a pretty clear answer to charges that the project is unethical.

With only a few months to go till the Australian election, any political parties that would like to try randomising their political strategy should feel free to get in touch.

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4 Responses to All politics is local. Some politics is random.

  1. Peter Tucker says:

    Mmm … good luck getting this past the ethics committee.

    Very, very interesting, though.

  2. Sacha Blumen says:

    Which political party has an ethics committee? 🙂

    I’ve wondered whether Australian political parties have done campaigning experiments – practically speaking, these experiments would probably be done in safe seats held by the opposing party. It would be interesting to see the results.

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Sacha, I’ve asked around a little about this. Of course, if it had been done, then a wise political party would keep the results secret. But my impression is that it has not yet been done, in Oz at least.

  4. Sacha says:

    A political party may be reticent to do a campaign experiment in a safe seat (whether its own or of the opposing party) if its votes in that seat nevertheless help elect other candidates, eg in the Upper houses federally and in all states except Qld (Tas is a separate case).

    One could do an experiment in Qld state elections. There are plenty of state seats the ALP would almost certainly never win (eg on the Darling Downs where independents are the major threat to the National Party) and almost always win (eg Inala, Lytton, Nudgee, Woodridge).

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