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Published August 18, 2021 | Accepted Version
Report Open

Voter Attention and Electoral Accountability


What sorts of policy decisions do voters pay attention to, and why? And how does rational voter attention affect the behavior of politicians in office? We extend the Canes-Wrone, Herron and Shotts (2001) model of electoral agency to allow the voter to rationally choose when to "pay attention" to an incumbent's policy choice by expending costly effort to learn its consequences. In our model, the voter is sometimes motivated to pay costly attention to improve selection, but that attention influences accountability as a by-product. When attention is moderately costly, the voter generally pays more of it after the ex-ante unpopular policy than after the ex-ante popular one. Rational attention may improve accountability by decreasing the incumbent's rewards to choosing the ex-ante popular policy, increasing her rewards to choosing the ex-ante unpopular one, or both. However, it may also severely harm accountability, both by inducing a strong incumbent to "play it safe" by choosing a policy that avoids attention, or a weak incumbent to "gamble for resurrection" by choosing a policy that draws it. Finally, rational attention can induce or worsen pandering (that is, a bias toward the ex-ante popular policy) but never "fake leadership" (that is, a bias toward the ex-ante popular policy). The latter phenomenon thus requires an asymmetry in voter learning that derives from a process separate from costly information acquisition by the voter, and that is also sufficient to overcome its countervailing effects.

Additional Information

We thank Ken Shotts, Pablo Montagnes, and seminar audiences at Caltech, the Formal Theory Virtual Workshop, Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, Princeton Department of Politics, and Utah Department of Finance for helpful comments and advice.

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Accepted Version - sswp1458.pdf


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