Are presidential candidates buying your vote?

Monday’s Republican debate in New Hampshire featured former Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney outperforming GOP rivals like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann doing her “tea party” supporters proud. Whatever the candidates’ differences, President Obama and the ailing economy served as their common enemy.

In such campaigns, candidates often champion themselves as defending the little guy against big government and special interests. But in a fundamental way, candidates on the campaign trail are buying your vote, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Political Economy.

In an economic sense, the paper’s authors say, votes are “bought” with a candidate’s campaign promises, and the bill comes due later, to the voter, in the form of taxes. Is that behavior any different from straight-out buying your ballot?

To test whether anything different would happen in a system in which campaigners could freely “buy” votes, the researchers set up game-like models in which voters could be bought off, or when only campaign promises could be used. They found, oddly enough, that buying votes was the most cost-effective long-term strategy: “When parties compete only through campaign promises, the total payments received by voters tend to be substantially higher than under up-front vote buying.”


The study’s findings provide some insight into human nature, not just campaigning: Voters will settle for smaller rewards from a candidate that offers them immediate gratification, even if a campaign promise could offer them larger gains in the long run.

They also point to previous research from 1990, whose authors “claim that vote buying was widespread (though never fully legal) in Britain and the United States prior to the introduction of secret ballots toward the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. They claim that when vote buying occurred, the sums involved were quite small. Moreover, they argue that the elimination of vote buying contributed to the historical rise in government expenditures on social policies.”

So campaign promises encourage big government? There’s a thought for your penny.

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