How to win an election? Substance not cash.

I’m at the Experiments in Governance and Politics conference today, with many excellent papers.

Politicians, take heed once more. Deliberating policy platforms is cheaper and more effective than rallies and vote-buying.

The experiment took place during the March 2011 elections in Benin and involved 150 randomly selected villages. The treatment group had town hall meetings where voters deliberated over their candidate’s electoral platforms with no cash distribution. The control group had the standard campaign, i.e. one-way communication of the candidate’s platform by himself or his local broker, followed (most of the time) by cash distribution.

We find that the treatment has a positive effect on turnout. In addition, using village level election returns, we find no significant difference in electoral support for the experimental candidate between treatment and control villages.

…the positive treatment effect is driven in large part by active information sharing by those who attended the meetings.

See the full paper, by Leonard Wantchekon.

9 thoughts on “How to win an election? Substance not cash.

  1. Leonard’s project sounds really interesting, and I see that this post is getting a lot of attention. I wonder, though, if people aren’t being hasty about generalizing findings from a relatively poor and rural country like Benin to politics in all democracies, including rich and urban ones in Europe and North America. It’s not hard to imagine that the dynamics Leonard observes would differ in environments saturated with political advertising, including negative ads, robo-calls, and door-to-door canvasing.

  2. The only effect was on turnout? So it won’t apply to the 30+ countries with compulsory voting. Like Australia where turnout is >95%.

    I’d like to hear that the deliberative approach (or another approach) had an effect on voting patterns.

    Agree with Jay about the generalisability. Still, it is interesting.

  3. but, @Jay, it seems the scientific community is more than willing to accept ideas that generalize behavior based on research using undergrads at big universities. If we’re willing to do that, we might consider making some generalizations from rural Africa.

    If we’re unwilling to do that, why not just replicate the study in an industrialized society, then?

  4. I think this is a shocking breach of ethics. Can you imagine this experiment being run in the U.S.? Giving out money? Just because these things are *possible* because of someone’s connections, it does not mean they should be done. The world of experiments in the social sciences is going to come crashing down when one of them actually throws an election, or worse. The questions that are posed by social science are rarely important enough to hand wave at ethics.

  5. I wonder if these worries are borne out by a careful reading of the paper.

    While there is potential for ethical breaches in such experiments, does this one really fit the bill?

    Here’s what I consider:

    1. The researchers did not give out cash. The parties just did “business as usual” in the villages. The experimental treatment was asking parties not to hold rallies or give cash in random areas.

    2. The design and program was implemented through an all-party conference with all candidates in the hopes of persuading them to adopt less patronage-focused policies.

    The fact is, this is an important area of knowledge building and well-run RCTs are helping to transform Benin politics.

    Not only do I think it’s important to recognize when a researcher scrupulously follows IRB protocols in research areas where the ground is treacherous, but I also think the fact that the research is explicitly designed to promote a less patrimonial political system should be celebrated.

  6. Thanks to Chris for posting the paper and more importantly for his last post. Thanks to all, for your interest.
    I would like to simply urge George, Jay and Gilliam and everyone to read the paper.
    A clarification: the first stage of experiment consisted of a policy conference organized by a local research institute, involving all the candidates to discuss Maths education, Emergency Health care, rural infrastructure, youth unemployment and corruption. After the conference, the top three candidates agreed to take this message to voters from randomly selected villages. There was NO cash distribution in those villages. Just policy debates.
    Imagine a similar initiative before the 2012 election in US, by NBER or Hoover! It can only be a good thing. And there must ways to deal with contamination due media coverage of the campaign.
    In short, we should be praising politicians from poor countries who are brave and open minded enough to work with researchers and experiment different different electoral strategies.
    As for external validity, I would like to add that there plans to run similar experiments in other countries in Africa and Latin America