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Do voters care about large and complex policy topics? Evidence from three conjoint experiments in Brazil

Under Review

In representative democracy, the idea is that voters delegate policy making to a group of officials and then use elections to hold those officials accountable for the policies they produce. They can vote out politicians whose actions in office they see as contributing to their misery and replace them with politicians who promise to enact policy changes that will make them better off. The theoretical political science literature on elections uses as its starting point the assumption that voters prioritize (or even focus exclusively on) policy compatibility, preferring politicians whose policy preferences resemble their own. 

When voters answer survey questions, which are mostly free of consequences (cheap talk), and are most often asked without reference to tradeoffs, they might say that they hold a clear position about some policy.


When choosing their representatives, however, candidates represent more than just their positions on policy proposals. Voters must trade off perceived policy compatibility against such things as descriptive representation (age, gender, ethnicity, region), competence, effort, integrity, and constituency service. Of particular interest in the context of developing democracies is the question of whether a candidate’s anti-democratic rhetoric or behavior matter to voters, either attracting or repelling voters at election time.

I bring together the literature on voting behavior with the literature on interest-group politics. When lobbying lawmakers, organized interest groups seek to persuade them that voters will punish them if they vote against the organized group’s interests. This tactic again relies on the assumption that voters base their voting decisions on perceptions of policy compatibility. I analyze the extent to which voters’ choices are impacted by knowing candidates’ records on two important and highly publicized policy changes in Brazil: an anti-corruption law and a major pension-system reform.

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