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Party Responsiveness and Mandate Balancing

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Principal Investigator(s):

James Fowler
University of California, San Diego
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Sample size: 820
Field period: 1/13/2005 - 1/19/2005


Recent evidence suggests that parties are responsive to elections, adjusting their post-electoral policies in the direction of the winner and in proportion to the margin of victory. If voters believe that parties are responsive, then they may have an incentive to vote strategically. Specifically, those who prefer moderate policies have an incentive to engage in mandate balancing, the act of voting for the party expected to lose in order to reduce the margin of victory. Using a nationally-representative sample in the U.S., we test voter beliefs and study the effect of these beliefs on vote choice behavior. We find that many voters believe that parties are responsive to vote share, and this belief causes nonpartisans to be significantly more likely than partisans to vote against the winner as the expected margin of victory increases.


1) "Voters believe that an increase the margin of victory in an election causes a) the winning party to support more extreme policies and candidates and b) the losing party to support more moderate policies and candidates."

2) "Independents are more likely to support the losing candidate as the margin of victory increases."

Experimental Manipulation:

Outcome of previous election in vote share.

Key Dependent Variables:

Voter Beliefs about Party Responsiveness
Vote Choice

Summary of Findings:

1. Voters tend to believe that the policies and candidates of both parties respond to past election results. However, Republican voters appear to believe even more strongly than Democratic voters that the Democratic party is responsive. Since the survey was conducted in January 2005, many
Republican voters may have continued to be affected by an electoral campaign that described Democrats and John Kerry as "flip-floppers."

2. Nonpartisan voters are more likely than partisans to switch their vote to the loser as the margin of victory increases. This act of strategic voting is predicted by several recent formal models. While it is possible that the result reflects an anti-partisan stance by nonpartisans, this is unlikely since only those nonpartisans who believe in responsive parties exhibit a tendency to vote strategically. If nonpartisans tend to prefer moderate policies, then these results are supportive of the mandate balancing theory.



Political behavior is shaped by beliefs about how politics works. To understand political behavior, we need to know what people believe about the political process. In this study, we examine voter beliefs about party responsiveness and how such beliefs affect voting behavior. Our findings have important implications for the study of party and candidate behavior. The assumption that voters believe in responsive politicians is vital for a number of recent formal models of electoral competition (Alesina and Rosenthal 1995; Fowler and Smirnov 2003; Meirowitz 2004; Meirowitz and Tucker 2003; Piketty 2000; Razin 2003; Shotts 2000). This study provides evidence that such an assumption can be supported empirically. It also provides evidence for an empirical implication of these models: that some people will engage in strategic voting, even in two candidate contests on a single issue dimension.


Fowler, James and Oleg Smirnov. 2007. Mandates, Parties, and Voters: How Elections Shape the Future. Temple University Press.

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