The Real Swing Voter's Curse

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American Economic Review 99 (2), 2009, pages 310-315


A central idea in political economy is that voters who are not ideologically attached to a political party, so-called ‘swing voters,’ attract policy favors and redistribution because they become the focus of electoral competition. In many parts of the world, however, politicians do not just use carrots to win elections, they also use sticks - coercion and violence. In this paper we show that expanding the ‘policy space’ to incorporate this can completely overturn the predictions of the standard model. The reason for this is simple. With all groups of voters at play, political competition does indeed lead to a chase for the support of swing voters. In equilibrium this enables such voters to extract a large amount of rent from politicians. Anticipating this, politicians have an incentive to use violence to effectively disenfranchise swing voters. Indeed, and surprisingly, we show that it can be more attractive for an incumbent to disenfranchise the swing voters than the core supporters of the opposition. Swing voters are not blessed but cursed.


By James A. Robinson and Ragnar Torvik
Published June 23, 2011 3:07 PM - Last modified June 23, 2011 3:11 PM