INVEST blog 4/2023
Political parties buy more votes when they are winning an election
Why do political parties engage in risky and illegal activities, such as vote buying (i.e. clientelism)? The literature has been completely silent about this question. It has always been assumed that parties engage in these kinds of activities when they’re losing the election. However, after conducting some laboratory experiments, we discovered the opposite behavior: parties engage in vote buying when they’re winning the election.
This is interesting because it speaks about our attitudes towards risks, gains and losses. In our paper we discovered that individuals do not care much about winning as much as they care about not losing. In particular, political parties care more about not losing the voters they have already convinced rather than adding new adherents.
We conducted a laboratory experiment to conduct the study. Lab experiments are designed to recreate the market conditions that drive individuals to make decisions. However, as soon as we started collecting the data, COVID hit and it was impossible to gather people in the laboratory. So we had to find another way to do the experiment online.
The result of the study was that political parties buy more votes when they are winning an election. The literature was arguing the opposite: parties buy votes when they’re losing. It made sense: if they’re losing the election, and if we assume the have incentives to remain in power, they will buy more votes. However, we discovered the opposite (i.e., political parties buy more votes when they are wining an election). This is because “losses loom larger than gains.”
The overall empirical findings should also apply to Finland: parties will try to engage in bold strategies when the chances of winning an election are higher (not lower). Think about the following: the more you own, the more scared you are of losing what you own. In other words, to win is great, but to lose hurts more than winning pleases. So, in Finland we should see that the “winning horses” should engage more in campaign spending, door-to-door campaigning, etc. Prior research thought that more spending was waste in the cases of “winning horses.” Now we understand that this is not the case.
Hector Bahamonde is a Senior Researcher at the INVEST Research Flagship Center of the University of Turku, Finland and also a Research Director of the INVEST-Hub about experimental research and interventions. He’s primary subfield is the political economy of inequality, political development and clientelism.