Take 5: Election Rules and Campaign Tactics That Sway Voters
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Politics & Elections Oct 30, 2018

Take 5: Election Rules and Campaign Tactics That Sway Voters

A look at whether celebrity endorsements matter, why the top spot on a ballot is coveted, and more election research from Kellogg faculty.

Election rules affect outcome

Yevgenia Nayberg

Voting is a civic duty. It is also a rich area for academic study, one that Kellogg faculty have delved into, from which campaign messages persuade voters to how election rules can favor certain types of candidates.

In time for Elec­tion Day, we’ve gath­ered togeth­er some of our faculty’s elec­tion-relat­ed research. 

1. Do Celebri­ty Endorse­ments Mat­ter?

Many can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office loud­ly tout their celebri­ty endorse­ments. But how much does the sup­port of Bey­on­cé or Scott Baio or Willie Nel­son real­ly mat­ter at the bal­lot box?

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To find out, Craig Garth­waite, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of strat­e­gy, and a col­league exam­ined the impact of one of the world’s most well-known and well-loved celebri­ties: Oprah Win­frey. In the 2008 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, Oprah endorsed Barack Oba­ma in his race against Hillary Clin­ton.

To mea­sure what impact this had on vot­ers, the researchers cal­cu­lat­ed the num­ber of sub­scribers to O, the Oprah Mag­a­zine who lived in each U.S. coun­ty. They then com­pared the num­ber of sub­scribers in a giv­en area to Obama’s suc­cess in that same area. After con­trol­ling for a wide range of socioe­co­nom­ic and demo­graph­ic fac­tors, they found that Oba­ma did bet­ter in areas with more O sub­scribers.

The researchers’ next step was to make sure they were not sim­ply see­ing an under­ly­ing pref­er­ence for Oba­ma that was cor­re­lat­ed with a pref­er­ence for Oprah. So they ran the com­par­i­son again, but this time com­pared O sub­scribers’ loca­tions with the results of Obama’s ear­li­er race, the 2004 pri­ma­ry in Illi­nois for the U.S. Sen­ate. This time, they found no rela­tion between Oprah’s pop­u­lar­i­ty and votes for Oba­ma.

That sug­gests that there’s real­ly not some under­ly­ing pref­er­ence that’s dri­ving this, but it’s the endorsement’s effect,” Garth­waite says.

Over­all, they cal­cu­lat­ed that Oprah’s endorse­ment was worth about 1 mil­lion votes for Oba­ma in 2008.

It’s unclear, of course, whether oth­er celebri­ties would have had the same effect.

The ques­tion we real­ly have to ask is whether the fact that Oprah is such a pow­er­ful celebri­ty means that the mag­ni­tude of her endorse­ment is greater than oth­ers’,” Garth­waite says, or if it means that only her endorse­ment, and no one else’s, would have an effect. 

2. Tim­ing Mat­ters in Cam­paign Messaging

Can­di­dates on the stump often choose between two kinds of mes­sages: abstract ideas about core val­ues and ideals or con­crete state­ments about pol­i­cy plans. So which type is more effective?

It depends on how far away the elec­tion is, accord­ing to research from mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor Angela Y. Lee. In a series of exper­i­ments about a fic­tion­al can­di­date, she and col­leagues found that abstract notions res­onat­ed with vot­ers ear­ly in the cam­paign, but con­crete mes­sages became more mean­ing­ful as Elec­tion Day approached.

In one exper­i­ment, 92 under­grad­u­ates were shown state­ments from a fic­tion­al can­di­date for the U.S. Sen­ate. One state­ment was abstract and focused on ideals and val­ues; the oth­er was con­crete and focused on the impor­tance of being action ori­ent­ed.” Each state­ment came in two ver­sions: one say­ing the cam­paign would begin in one week and the oth­er say­ing the cam­paign would start in six months. After read­ing the state­ments, sub­jects were asked to rate their atti­tudes toward the can­di­date and their assess­ment of the candidate’s state­ment.

The results showed that abstract mes­sages were more per­sua­sive when par­tic­i­pants believed the cam­paign was six months away, while con­crete, action-ori­ent­ed mes­sages were more con­vinc­ing when par­tic­i­pants thought the cam­paign was at hand.

The results could help polit­i­cal can­di­dates make bet­ter use of the increas­ing­ly huge sums they spend to reach voters. 

3. The Advan­tage of the Top Bal­lot Spot

Can­di­dates try might­i­ly to man­age their endorse­ments and cam­paign mes­sages. But one impor­tant fac­tor is entire­ly out of their con­trol: where their name sits on the bal­lot.

That posi­tion­ing — in par­tic­u­lar, whether a candidate’s name is list­ed first — mat­ters quite a bit, accord­ing to research from Yuval Salant, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences, and a col­league.

The researchers turned to Cal­i­for­nia for their study because of its unique method of assign­ing bal­lot posi­tions. Instead of list­ing names alpha­bet­i­cal­ly, the Cal­i­for­nia Sec­re­tary of State draws a ran­dom order of the alpha­bet, and the can­di­dates are list­ed on bal­lots accord­ing to that order.

Because can­di­dates’ posi­tions on the bal­lot are qua­si-ran­dom, the researchers were able to com­pare how many win­ners came from the top bal­lot posi­tion ver­sus how many were sta­tis­ti­cal­ly like­ly to come from that posi­tion.

The results showed a clear advan­tage to that top spot. Being list­ed first on the bal­lot increas­es a candidate’s chances of win­ning office by almost five per­cent­age points.

In one out of ten elec­tions, the can­di­date list­ed first won just because he was list­ed first,” Salant says.

The first-can­di­date advan­tage was sim­i­lar in city-coun­cil and in school-board elec­tions, in races with and with­out an open seat, as well as in elec­tions that were designed to pro­duce more than one winner. 

4. How Elec­tion Rules Affect Who Wins

A candidate’s suc­cess is also impact­ed by the type of elec­tion they are run­ning in.

There are two gen­er­al cat­e­gories. In dis­trict elec­tions, a city, state, or coun­try is split into dis­tricts, and res­i­dents can vote only for can­di­dates in their dis­trict. For exam­ple, each ward in a city might elect its own alder­man. In at-large elec­tions, every per­son can vote for any can­di­date. For instance, an entire city might choose from the same pool of can­di­dates to elect city-coun­cil mem­bers.

Geor­gy Egorov, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences, and col­leagues exam­ined the two types of elec­tions in a recent exper­i­ment in Afghanistan.

In 2002, the Afghan gov­ern­ment designed a pro­gram to fund pub­lic resources, such as wells and bridges, in vil­lages. Each vil­lage need­ed to elect a coun­cil to man­age the projects. The gov­ern­ment allowed Egorov and his col­leagues to ran­dom­ly assign 250 vil­lages to either a dis­trict or an at-large vot­ing sys­tem as an exper­i­ment.

When researchers ana­lyzed elec­tion results, they saw a clear pat­tern. In at-large elec­tions, vil­lagers elect­ed more edu­cat­ed peo­ple. And these offi­cials had less extreme pol­i­cy pref­er­ences than those cho­sen in dis­trict elec­tions.

The type of elec­tion mat­ters,” Egorov says.

Does that mean at-large elec­tions are bet­ter? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, he says.

A soci­ety that val­ues hav­ing a wide diver­si­ty of views rep­re­sent­ed might pre­fer dis­trict elec­tions, which result in more polar­ized coun­cils. Hav­ing extreme views rep­re­sent­ed in gov­ern­ment, Egorov says, might mean that cit­i­zens who sup­port those poli­cies are less like­ly to resort to protests or vio­lence to make their voic­es heard.

5. Supreme Court Jus­tices: Neu­tral Arbi­tra­tors or Wannabe Politi­cians?

For many can­di­dates — and vot­ers — the biggest prize of the U.S. con­gres­sion­al and pres­i­den­tial elec­tions is the chance for their par­ty to appoint and con­firm Supreme Court jus­tices.

Though Supreme Court nom­i­na­tions are made by the par­ty in the White House, the jus­tices them­selves are sup­posed to be neu­tral arbi­tra­tors of the law. Yet it’s been clear to polit­i­cal sci­en­tists since the 1940s that a judge’s ide­ol­o­gy — whether con­ser­v­a­tive or lib­er­al — often pre­dicts which way he or she will vote. Less clear, how­ev­er, is why.

Do con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­er­al jus­tices rule dif­fer­ent­ly sim­ply because they inter­pret the Con­sti­tu­tion dif­fer­ent­ly? Or are judges wannabe pol­i­cy­mak­ers active­ly seek­ing to push the law in the direc­tion of their choos­ing?

Jörg Spenkuch, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences, and col­leagues sought an answer. In par­tic­u­lar, they want­ed to test a new the­o­ry: that judges vote more in-line with their ide­ol­o­gy when their vote is the piv­otal vote in a 5 – 4 deci­sion.

The researchers used the Supreme Court Data­base, a mas­sive pub­lic col­lec­tion of detailed infor­ma­tion about every case since 1946, to ana­lyze more than 8,500 cas­es.

The results were strik­ing.

The effect of a justice’s ide­ol­o­gy on how he or she votes essen­tial­ly dou­bles when the vote is piv­otal,” Spenkuch says.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the researchers found that the more lib­er­al or con­ser­v­a­tive a jus­tice is, the more fre­quent­ly he or she votes in that direc­tion when cast­ing the decid­ing vote.

The results prompt seri­ous ques­tions about the neu­tral­i­ty of the judi­cial branch.

Our idea of a good judge is that of an impar­tial umpire,” Spenkuch says. But jus­tices in some cas­es dis­re­gard the role of the umpire in favor of that of the politician.”

Featured Faculty

Craig Garthwaite

Associate Professor of Strategy, Director of Health Enterprise Program, HEMA

Angela Y. Lee

Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing, Chair of Marketing Department

Yuval Salant

Associate Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences

Georgy Egorov

Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences

Jörg L. Spenkuch

Associate Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences

About the Writer

Emily Stone is the senior research editor at Kellogg Insight.

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