Academic Research


Do Local Leaders Prioritize the Poor? Identifying the Distributive Preferences of Village Politicians in India (with Neelanjan Sircar)

April 2024 Electoral Studies

We investigate the distributive preferences of elected leaders in local democracies, who are tasked with “everyday assistance” and personally know their constituents. In this setting, economic distribution is driven more by leader preferences and less by efficiency concerns, as in the lower information setting typically described in the literature. In local democracy, we argue voters can explicitly select leaders who prefer to distribute to a broad group of supporters, who further conform to norms of targeting the most needy among supporters. In this article, we develop a novel behavioral measure that isolates leaders’ distributive preferences from direct electoral benefit, which we implement in villages across the Indian state of Rajasthan. We find elected leaders prefer to distribute 94% more to supporters and 17% more to supporters one standard deviation below the mean village wealth. This suggests local elections are consistent with significant distribution to the poor, albeit with political biases.

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

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.

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?”

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?”

Media Writing

“Are Local Politicians Responsive to Their Constituents?” (Coming in 2024).

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.

Works in Progress

Does Increasing Competition Increase Pro-Poor Responsiveness? Distributive Preferences of Partisan Brokers in Mexico (With Tesalia Rizzo, UC Merced). Do local partisan brokers change their distributive preferences when faced with competition from non-partisan actors? This paper measures local partisan intermediaries’ distributive preferences in 112 villages embedded in a larger field experiment conducted in Mexico. The field experiment randomly introduces a non-partisan facilitator trained to inform and assist citizens in formally requesting government resources, a task that usually falls to the partisan intermediary. Using conjoint analysis, we find that partisan brokers in the treatment group express more progressive distributive preferences as measured through a conjoint analysis. Our results show that higher levels of local competition for brokerage results in more progressive targeting preferences. 

The Role of Social Media in Democratization and Democratic Consolidation (with National Democratic Institute).

In recent decades, social media has become a critical informational and mobilization tool for democracy and human rights activists and civic discussions. At the same time, autocrats have used social media to monitor and repress their citizens and discredit democratic institutions using disinformation with a goal to reverse democratic progress and prevent the broad public support for democracy required for consolidation. In this review essay, I examine the role of social media in democratization and democratic consolidation, and consider the challenge disinformation and and other anti-democratic online strategies play in the digital space.

Can Local Representatives Deliver? Bureaucratic Responsiveness to  Elected Local Leaders in India. India’s 73rd amendment decentralized substantial powers over the implementation of national policies to local governments;  however, carrying out constituents’ demands often requires cooperation from unelected bureaucrats. This project will examine the relationship between local representatives and unelected state institutions through a survey of village council presidents (sarpanch) and local bureaucrats (panchayat secretaries). Along with survey data examining the relationship between local bureaucrats and sarpanch, I include two experiments. The first experiment asks sarpanch for their expectations of responsiveness with local bureaucrats across a range of government requests they frequently make on behalf of their constituents. The second experiment asks local bureaucrats how likely they are execute a request made by the sarpanch for requests that vary  across the same set of characteristics. This project provides insights on democratic decentralization and the role that unelected institutions play in mediating democratic responsiveness.

Misinformation in Local Elections in the United States: Consequences and Remedies. Misinformation is widespread in political campaigns and elections. While concerns about the effects of misinformation on representation and accountability have focused on national political targets (e.g., Biden, Trump), little is known about the effects of misinformation on local elections where voters have little knowledge of many of the candidates. This project will evaluate the effects of misinformation of various types targeting local and national politicians on perceptions of political candidates, interest in local politics, and vote intentions.

Does Local Competition Matter? Local Electoral Competition, Political Selection, and Responsiveness in India. Millions of local elections take place in rural India with extremely high levels of participation. Nonetheless, little is known about the extent to which local elections are competitive;  what explains variation in competition; and its effects across localities. Little is known also on how candidates differ in competitive races in this setting. Drawing on rarely analyzed data on local elections in India, census data, and a phone survey of village council presidents and runners up across the state of Rajasthan, this project provides a novel examination into the roots and consequences of local competition in elections for village council president.

Future  Research

Are Local Leaders Responsive to Voters’ Preferences? Representation, and Responsiveness for Pro-Poor Distribution in Rural India. What explains variation in pro-poor responsiveness across villages in contexts of weak state capacity in the global south? Political economy research suggests that elected leaders are responsive to their constituents; however, little is known about how voters’ targeting preferences vary across localities. In this project, I examine variation in voters’ preferences over which types of voters should be prioritized for routine assistance and policy outcomes in their localities using conjoint survey experiments and cross-referenced surveys that captures information voters and leaders have about one another. First, I develop conjoint experiments to understand the voter traits (e.g., wealth, caste, partisanship) that villagers prioritize when it comes to who they think local leaders should target. To determine whether voters’ preferences toward pro-poor targeting shape leaders’ behaviors, I examine alignment between voters’ social preferences at the village level and local government responsiveness on a variety of distributive outcomes. This project makes an important contribution in our understanding of social preferences in the global south–a context where voters’ distributive preferences and the distributive effects of democratic representation have been largely ignored.

Early Work

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