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

Forthcoming at 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 (Forthcoming at 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?”Articles Under Review

Does Local Democracy Serve the Poor? Identifying the Distributive Preferences of Village Politicians in India

(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?”

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)

This review article draws on the insights of research on distributive politics, ethnic politics, and elections in India to advance a research agenda that transcends the received wisdom on the politics of developing countries.

Works in Progress

What Goes on in Your Mind? The Psychology of Survey Response in Fictional Candidate Vignette Experiments

Fictional candidate experiments using hypothetical vignettes are commonly used to identify the causal effects of candidate traits such as ethnicity, gender, and competence. While vignette experiments often require respondents to process information on numerous candidate characteristics in a short period of time, scholars have not considered the impact of cognitive demand on the quality of data from these survey experiments. In this project, I manipulate the level of cognitive demand in fictional candidate experimental vignettes on local politicians in India using mturk. I extend Krosnik’s model of satisficing to examine the psychology of survey response in these experiments.


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.