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Electoral Promises in Formal Models

“Read my lips, no new taxes” and “end welfare as we know it”

Before an election, candidates announce platforms and the winner implements a policy after the election. Although politicians usually betray their platforms, such betrayal could prove costly. For example, in 1988 in the United States, George H. W. Bush promised, “read my lips, no new taxes.” However, he increased taxes after becoming president. The media and voters noted this betrayal, and he lost the 1992 presidential election (Campbell, 2008, p. 104). On the contrary, in his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” In the 1994 midterm election, the Republican Party gained a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Under pressure from Congress to keep his platform, he signed the welfare reform bill in 1996 (Weaver, 2000, Ch. 5).

These cases show two of the major characteristics of electoral promises. First, politicians decide policy on the basis of their platforms and the perceived cost of betrayal. If politicians betray their platforms, the people and media criticize them, they must address their electorate’s complaints, their approval ratings may fall, and the possibility of them losing the next election might increase - as in the case of Bush.1 Moreover, a stronger party or Congress may discipline such politicians, as in the case of Clinton.2 On the basis of such costs of betrayal and the platform, the winner decides on the policy to be implemented after the election. The second characteristic is that politicians frequently prefer to use vague words and announce several policies in their electoral promises, a practice referred to as “political ambiguity.” For instance, Clinton’s promise above only stated his intention to reform the welfare system; he did not explicitly reveal the nature of the reform, which left the door open for further negotiation with the Republican Party.

However, most game-theoretical analyses of electoral competition have overlooked these two characteristics of electoral promises. Indeed, they avoid explicitly analyzing electoral platforms altogether. Formal models have supposed that candidates can choose only a single policy, meaning that political ambiguity never arises. Moreover, they fail to analyze platforms and policies separately and instead introduce two polar assumptions about platforms. On the one hand, models with completely binding platforms suppose that a politician cannot implement any policy other than the platform. That is, a politician never reneges on his/her promise and automatically implements the announced platform. The most famous example of such models is the electoral competition models in the Downsian tradition, that is, models based on those proposed by Downs (1957) and Wittman (1973). On the other hand, models with non-binding platforms suppose that a politician can implement any policy freely without any cost. In these models, voters do not believe electoral promises, so it is not meaningful to announce them. Therefore, a candidate’s decisions on his/ her platform are not explicitly analyzed. For example, this approach is taken in citizen-candidate models (Osborne and Slivinski, 1996; Besley and Coate, 1997) and retrospective voting models (Barro, 1973; Fere- john, 1986; Besley, 2006). Neither model captures how, for example, Bush betrayed his platform and was then punished for doing so by the electorate or how Clinton kept his platform under pressure from Congress. To consider the effects of platforms on political competition, it is thus important to bridge these two settings; as Persson and Tabellini (2000) indicate, “(it) is thus somewhat schizophrenic to study either extreme: where platforms have no meaning or where they are all that matter. To bridge the two models is an important challenge” (p. 483).

The main purpose of this book is to provide a theoretical framework within which to analyze these two characteristics of campaign promises based on the electoral competition model in the Downsian tradition. Chapters 2 and 3 build a model with partially binding platforms, which supposes that although a candidate can choose any policy, there is a cost of betrayal. The policy to be implemented is affected by, but may be different from, the platform because this cost of betrayal increases with the degree of betrayal. As Figure 1.1 shows, models of completely binding platforms assume that candidates implement their platform, whereas models of non-binding platforms assume that candidates implement their own ideal policy. On the contrary, models of partially binding platforms suppose that candidates implement a policy situated between their platform and ideal policy. Chapter 4 discusses why candidates make vague promises in electoral competitions. Classically, the

Completely, Non-, and Partially Binding Platforms

Figure 1.1 Completely, Non-, and Partially Binding Platforms.

In models of completely binding platforms, candidates implement their platform. In models of non-binding platforms, candidates implement their ideal policy. In models of partially binding platforms, candidates implement a policy between their platform and ideal policy.

convexity of a voter’s preference is recognized as one possible reason driving political ambiguity. However, past studies have not shown it as an equilibrium. Based on the foregoing, 1 identify the conditions under which candidates choose an ambiguous platform in the equilibrium when voters have convex utilities. Chapters 2 to 4 are revised versions of Asako (2015a, 2015b, 2019), respectively. The proofs of all the propositions, lemmas, and corollaries are collected in the appendix.

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