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A Behavioral Theory of Elections

A Behavioral Theory of Elections

Jonathan Bendor
Daniel Diermeier
David A. Siegel
Michael M. Ting
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    A Behavioral Theory of Elections
    Book Description:

    Most theories of elections assume that voters and political actors are fully rational. While these formulations produce many insights, they also generate anomalies--most famously, about turnout. The rise of behavioral economics has posed new challenges to the premise of rationality. This groundbreaking book provides a behavioral theory of elections based on the notion that all actors--politicians as well as voters--are only boundedly rational. The theory posits learning via trial and error: actions that surpass an actor's aspiration level are more likely to be used in the future, while those that fall short are less likely to be tried later.

    Based on this idea of adaptation, the authors construct formal models of party competition, turnout, and voters' choices of candidates. These models predict substantial turnout levels, voters sorting into parties, and winning parties adopting centrist platforms. In multiparty elections, voters are able to coordinate vote choices on majority-preferred candidates, while all candidates garner significant vote shares. Overall, the behavioral theory and its models produce macroimplications consistent with the data on elections, and they use plausible microassumptions about the cognitive capacities of politicians and voters. A computational model accompanies the book and can be used as a tool for further research.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3680-2
    Subjects: Political Science, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Bounded Rationality and Elections
    (pp. 1-22)

    An intellectual revolution has occurred in political science: the diffusion of rational choice theories. The study of elections has been one of the most receptive subfields. All of its major components—party competition (Downs 1957), turnout (e.g., Riker and Ordeshook 1968), and voters’ choices (Downs’s spatial-proximity theory; see Merrill and Grofman 1999)—have been strongly influenced by rational choice models.

    We think this has been a salutary development for both the discipline in general and the study of elections in particular. The rational choice program has given political science a much-needed degree of intellectual coherence. This new-found coherence connects subfields...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Aspiration-based Adaptive Rules
    (pp. 23-51)

    In this chapter we discuss general ideas that will be used in all our models. In particular, we introduce the central notion,aspiration-based adaptive rules(ABARs), examine some basic properties of ABARs, and at the chapter’s end turn briefly to some evidence regarding aspirations.¹

    We typically assume thatn(finite) decision makers adapt by a form of trial-and-error learning: if an action seems to work, then the agent becomes more likely to use it in the future; if it doesn’t work, then the agent is less likely to use it again. An action works if it is subjectively satisfactory, i.e.,...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Party Competition
    (pp. 52-79)

    This chapter presents a behavioral model of elections based on satisficing (Simon 1955) coupled to the Schattschneider-Schumpeter-Downs macrohypothesis that in vigorous democracies major parties are structured to win elections. We model political parties as adaptive organizations that compete in a sequence of elections. Our central premises about decision making closely follow Simon’s analysis:winners satisfice(the winning party in periodtkeeps its platform int+ 1), whilelosers search. Simon’s general notion of an agent’s aspiration level is thus represented here by the domain-specific hypothesis that winning an election is satisfying, while losing is not.

    As noted in...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Turnout
    (pp. 80-108)

    We now turn our approach to what is perhaps the most prominent anomaly for rational choice theory. As Fiorina (1990) famously suggested, the problem is both well known and straightforward: in large electorates, the chance that any single voter will be pivotal is very small. Consequently, the cost of voting will outweigh the expected gains from turning out and few citizens will vote.¹

    This prediction stands contrary to some of the most easily observed facts about elections. Since 1960, turnout in U.S. presidential elections has always exceeded 49 percent. Even turnout in midterm elections has always exceeded 36 percent during...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Voter Choice
    (pp. 109-131)

    Two of the most robust findings about American voters are that few of them have coherent, detailed ideologies and few know much about politics. Donald Kinder summarizes decades of survey research on ideology: “Precious few Americans make sophisticated use of political abstraction. Most are mystified by or at least indifferent to standard ideological concepts, and not many express consistently liberal, conservative, or centrist positions on government policy” (1998, p. 796). Regarding information he reports that “the depth of ignorance demonstrated by modern mass publics can be quite breathtaking” and “the number of Americans who garble the most elementary points is…impressive”...

  9. CHAPTER SIX An Integrated Model of Two-Party Elections
    (pp. 132-160)

    Each of the last three chapters has presented a model of some aspect of the electoral process. In each case—party competition, voter turnout, and voter choice—we held all other electoral factors constant in order to focus tightly on the aspect of interest. Although this measured approach allowed for clean analyses, the price was rather high: each model froze some important features of elections that vary in the real world. In the turnout model in chapter 4, for example, citizens never change party identification; they can choose to stay home, but they cannot vote for the opposition. Conversely, in...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Elections with Multiple Parties
    (pp. 161-190)

    Thus far we have studied two-party elections. That is a natural place to start, but there is no need to restrict attention to two-party systems. Indeed, previous work in formal theory (e.g., Cox 1997) suggests that multiparty elections are strategically far more complex than two-party ones. Hence, cognitive constraints are more likely to bind, especially on voters.¹ This makes multiparty competition a particularly promising area for behavioral models, not only for voters but also for candidates who must contend with multiple rivals.

    Thus, in this chapter we study multiparty systems using tools provided in earlier chapters. First, we will examine...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Conclusions: Bounded Rationality and Elections
    (pp. 191-204)

    We have explored how boundedly rational candidates and voters try to make their way in a confusing world. The properties of these decision makers are broadly consistent with empirical work by political psychologists and foundational ideas of cognitive psychologists about how people process, store, and retrieve information. Our agents perform no heroic feats of computation. Instead, they adapt by aspiration-based trial and error. These models can analyze both statics (i.e., the limiting distribution of the stochastic process) and dynamics. Some of the most important and robust findings are as follows.

    Party location. The simple party competition model in chapter 3...

  12. APPENDIX A Proofs
    (pp. 205-214)
  13. APPENDIX B The Computational Model
    (pp. 215-232)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-248)
  15. Index
    (pp. 249-254)