Selection vs. accountability: campaign promises and retrospective voting in a laboratory experiment

Nick Feltovich and Francesco Giovannoni

We examine retrospective- and prospective-voting considerations in an experiment implementing a simple voting model. In each period, the official chooses how much rent to appropriate from a social endowment. Announcement of this choice is followed by an election between the official and a randomly selected challenger, with the winner becoming the official in the next period. We vary two features of the setting: (a) the discount factor, and (b) whether candidates can make costless, non-binding "campaign promises" about their behaviour if elected. Consistent with the model's predictions, both raising the discount factor and introducing campaign promises lead to lower rent appropriation by officials and worse electoral outcomes (other things equal) for incumbents. Campaign promises, despite being cheap talk, have real effects: promising less appropriation is rewarded by voters, but breaking such promises is punished. Finally, we find a weak positive association between campaign promises and officials' subsequent behaviour.

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