Research

Publications and Working Papers

Do Local Leaders Know Their Voters? A Test of Guessability in India

November 2019, Electoral Studies

Prominent theories of clientelism—the exchange of benefits for political support—depend on the assumption that brokers possess detailed information on voters’ political preferences prior to targeting. This article provides the first direct test of this assumption. It develops a unique survey measure, guessability, which gauges the ability of local brokers to correctly identify the partisan preferences of voters in their locality. It then develops a way to estimate brokers’ added informational value by comparing brokers’ performance against low-information benchmarks that capture guessability rates that can feasibly be achieved by outsiders. Original data from a cross-referenced survey of voters and elected village leaders across 96 village councils in Rajasthan, India indicate that while an important category of brokers out-perform low-information benchmarks overall or with respect to non-co-partisans. This has important implications for the feasibility of core and swing targeting strategies in India and beyond.

See a synopsis of the article in the Hindu Business Line here: “Can Benefits be Tied to the Vote?”

The Discerning Voter: Partisan Alignment and Local Distribution Under Multi-Level Governance

February 2020, Party Politics

What shapes voters’ expectations of receiving private anti-poverty benefits and local public goods in decentralized systems where discretion over the allocation of different types of government resources is held at different tiers of government? Existing models of instrumental voting in patronage-based democracies suggests that voters’ expectations are shaped by shared ethnic or partisan identities with party leaders or candidates or a record of past distribution. This work, however, does not consider the nuanced calculations that voters make in systems where different types of benefits are controlled by different tiers of government. In this article, I show that voters in rural India weigh the impact of co-partisan ties with the local leader on distribution differently where discretion over targeting varies between the local and state levels of government. I test my argument with a unique vignette survey experiment in which I randomize the partisan affiliation of real village council politicians, whom voters identify as a prominent Congress/BJP leader in their locality. Consistent with the argument, voters are more likely to anticipate private benefits when the sarpanch is a co-partisan; the impact of co-partisanship on access to state funds for local public goods is conditioned on whether the sarpanch belongs to the ruling party at the state level.

See a synopsis of the article in the Hindu Business Line here: “How Savvy is the Rural Indian Voter?”

Rethinking India and the Study of Electoral Politics in the Developing World

(With Adam Auerbach, Jennifer Bussell, Francesca Jensenius, Gareth Nellis, Neelanjan Sircar, Pavithra Suryanarayan, Tariq Thachil, Milan Vaishnav, Rahul Verma and Adam Ziegfeld)

March 2021, Perspectives on Politics

In the study of electoral politics and political behavior, India is often considered to be an exemplar of the centrality of contingency in distributive politics, the role of ethnicity in shaping political behavior, and the organizational weakness of political parties. Whereas these axioms do have some basis, the massive changes in political practices, the vast variation in political patterns, and the burgeoning literature on subnational dynamics in India mean that such generalizations are no longer tenable. The purpose of this article is to consider new and emerging research on India that compels us to rethink the contention that India neatly fits the prevailing wisdom in the comparative politics literature. Our objective is to elucidate how these more nuanced insights about Indian politics can improve our understanding of electoral behavior both across and within other countries, allowing us to question core assumptions in theories of comparative politics.

Does Local Democracy Serve the Poor? Identifying the Distributive Preferences of Village Politicians in India (Under Review)

(With Neelanjan Sircar)

What are the consequences of decentralization to elected local leaders for responsiveness to the poor in developing countries where local leaders often have significant personal discretion over distribution? Existing research suggests that efficiency concerns or electoral strategy explain targeting outcomes. By contrast, this article argues that targeting biases follow from the non-strategic distributive preferences of leaders selected through local elections in high-information village contexts where voters and leaders share dense social ties. Focusing on subsistence-based villages, we argue that elected leaders prefer to target their own supporters, and especially the poorest among them, consistent with the preferences of pivotal voters in this setting, where a norm to protect the survival of the poor is likely to be salient. To test our theory, we develop a behavioral measure that isolates elected leaders’ personal distributive preferences from electoral considerations in 84 villages in the Indian state of Rajasthan. We find that elected leaders prefer to distribute 94% more to political supporters and 17% more to supporters one standard deviation below mean village wealth. This suggests that local elections select leaders with preferences to target to the poorest villagers even when electoral incentives are removed, albeit with political biases.

See a synopsis of the article in the Hindu Business Line here: “Do Local Leaders Prioritize the Poor?”

Media

How Savvy is the Rural Indian Voter?” Hindu Business Line, 31 January 2018.

Do Local Leaders Prioritize the Poor?” Hindu Business Line, 14 December 2015.

Can Benefits be Tied to the Vote?” Hindu Business Line, 14 January 2014.

Early Work

Breaking the Wave: Explaining the Emergence of Inter-Ethnic Peace in a City of Historic Ethnic Violence, Honors Thesis, University of Michigan, 2004.