Skip to main content

Corrupt Politicians and Their Electoral Support: Some Experimental Observations*

  • Barry S. Rundquist (a1), Gerald S. Strom (a1) and John G. Peters (a2)

This paper concerns the relationship between voters and corrupt politicians. An explanation is suggested for why voters would discount even credible information that a candidate is corrupt. Then the results of an experiment designed to test a necessary condition in this explanation are reported. The principal implication of this exploratory study is that corrupt elected officials are immune from electoral reprisal because voters rather easily trade off the information that a candidate is corrupt in return for other things they value in the candidate.

Hide All

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, Illinois, September, 1974. The authors would like to thank John Ferejohn, John Gardiner, Susan Hansen, Lyman Kellstedt, Benjamin Page, Harry Scoble, Lester Seligman, Donley Studlar, Beatrice Villar, and Susan Welch for critical comments and suggestions relevant to drafts of this paper.

Hide All

1 For a useful collection of some of this work, see Heidenheimer, Arnold J., ed., Political Corruption: Readings in Comparative Analysis (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), especially Chapters 6 and 9, and Gardiner, John A. and Olson, David J., eds., Theft of the City (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1974).

There is no consensus in this literature on the standards appropriate to determining which political acts are “corrupt.” For some, political acts which violate the public interest for private interest or gain are corrupt. See, for instance, Rogow, Arnold A. and Lasswell, Harold D., Power, Corruption, and Rectitude (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963), pp. 132134. In a similar manner, Berg, Hahn, and Schmidhauser define political corruption as a process which “violates and undermines the norms of the system of public order which is deemed indispensable for the maintenance of political democracy.” See Berg, Larry L., Hahn, Harlan, and Schmidhauser, John R., Corruption in the American Political System (Morristown, New Jersey: General Learning Press, 1976), p. 3. Other authors hold that a political act is corrupt if the public deems it so. See, for example, Heidenheimer's, Arnold J. typology of corrupt acts based on this “public opinion” criterion, Political Corruption, pp. 2628. A third standard for assessing corrupt acts relies predominantly on legal norms: those acts are corrupt which violate the rules or norms of public-office holding for personal or private gain. See Nye, J. S., “Corruption and Political Development: A Cost-Benefit Analysis,” American Political Science Review, 61 (06, 1967), 417427, and Scott, James C., Comparative Political Corruption (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972), pp. 35 for an excellent discussion of the definitions of political corruption. In this paper we have chosen this latter criterion and define political corruption as engaging in illegal activity for personal or special interest gain.

2 Wilson, James Q., “Corruption: The Shame of the States,” The Public Interest, 2 (Winter, 1966), 2838, at p. 30, also reprinted in Heidenheimer, pp. 298–306.

3 Wilson, p. 31. Here Wilson is referring to an argument made in 1904 by Ford, Henry Jones in his “Municipal Corruption,” Political Science Quarterly, 19 (12, 1904), pp. 673686. This same theme is developed by Sait, Edward M. in “Machine, Political,” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, IX (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1933), 657661; by Bentley, Arthur F., The Process of Government, ed. Odegard, Peter H. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), Chapter II; and by Merton, Robert K., Social Structure and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1968), p. 73.

4 Wilson, , “Corruption,” p. 31.

5 James Bryce, in analyzing the incidence of corruption in the nineteenth-century Congress, claimed that the “opportunities for private gain are large, the chances of detection small,” and because of the relatively short tenure of most members, “the temptation to make hay while the sun shines is all the stronger.” See Bryce, James, The American Commonwealth, Hacker, Louis M., ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1959), Vol. I, p. 221.

6 Ibid., p. 197.

7 For the typology of incentives alluded to here, see Clark, Peter B. and Wilson, James Q., “Incentive Systems: A Theory of Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 6 (09, 1961), 129166. Solidary inducements are intangible rewards which accrue from socializing or group identification. Banfield and Wilson, for instance, refer to a precinct captain who offers “personal friendship” in return for a vote. See Banfield, Edward C. and Wilson, James Q., City Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 117. On the use of material incentives to induce electoral support, see Gosnell, Harold F., Machine Politics: Chicago Model, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), chapter IV.

8 Of course, in principle, politicians, like other citizens, are subject to prosecution for breaking laws, and this threat would seem to constrain their participation in illegal activities. This is not an issue here, since our focus is on the electoral rather than the legal constraint. For a journalistic treatment of the former point, see Liberman, Jethro K., How the Government Breaks the Law (New York: Stein and Day, 1974).

9 This argument follows from the familiar logic of rational party behavior. See Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), chapter 3.

10 Gardiner, John A., The Politics of Corruption: Organized Crime in an American City (New York: Russell Sage, 1970).

11 Greenstein, Fred I., The American Party System and the American People (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963), pp. 4749.

12 Banfield and Wilson, p. 122.

13 Ibid.

14 This formulation of rational choice is based on similar models developed by economists and psychologists. An early version of the economic model can be found in Davis, Otto A. and Hinich, Melvin J., “A Mathematical Model of Policy Formation in a Democratic Society,” in Mathematical Applications in Political Science II, ed. Bernd, J. L. (Dallas: Arnold Foundation, Southern Methodist University Press, 1966), 175205, see also, Davis, Otto A., Hinich, Melvin J. and Ordeshook, Peter C., “An Expository Development of a Mathematical Model of the Electoral Process,” American Political Science Review, 64 (06, 1970), 426448. For the psychological formulation, see Fishbein, Martin, “A Behavior Theory Approach to the Relations between Beliefs About an Object and the Attitude toward the Object,” in Readings in Attitude Theory and Measurement, ed. Fishbein, Martin (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1967), pp. 389400. This approach is applied to voting behavior in Fishbein, Martin and Coombs, Fred S., “Basis for Decision: An Attitudinal Approach toward an Understanding of Voting Behavior,” paper presented at the sixty-seventh Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, Illinois, 1971. A useful synthesis of the economic and psychological choice models is presented in Shapiro, Michael J., “Rational Political Man: A Synthesis of Economic and Social-Psychological Perspectives,” American Political Science Review, 63 (12, 1969), 11061119.

15 At a more general level, James C. Scott's theory of the relationship between changing loyalty patterns and the type of inducements political parties must offer for support fit as well with our own notions of individual candidate and voter choice. For instance, Scott suggests that, as the process of economic growth forges new occupational and class loyalties among former supporters, the political party must change the nature of its inducements “to stress policy concerns or ideology.” See Scott, James C., “Corruption, Machine Politics, and Political Change,” American Political Science Review, 63 (12, 1969), 11421158, at p. 1146.

16 Our distinction between implicit and explicit trading is analogous to that between implicit and explicit logrolling suggested by Buchanan and Tullock. Regarding implicit logrolling, they say:

Here there is no formal trading of votes, but an analogous process takes place. The political “entrepreneurs” who offer candidates or programs to the voters make up a complex mixture of policies designed to attract support. In so doing, they keep firmly in mind the fact that the single voter may be so interested in the outcome of a particular issue that he will vote for the one party that supports their issue, although he may be opposed to the party stand on all other issues.

Buchanan, James M. and Tullock, Gordon, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1962), pp. 134135.

17 The experiment was conducted oil the PLATO III computer-based education system at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A description of this system and the experiment is contained in the Appendix. For a more detailed description of the PLATO system, see Alpert, D. and Bitzer, D., “Advances in Computer-Based Education,” Science, 167 (03, 1970), 15821590.

18 For descriptions of generalized least squares regression, especially with dummy variables and limited dependent variables, see Johnston, J., Econometric Methods, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), pp. 208242 and 176–186; and Goldberger, Arthur S., Econometric Theory (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1964), pp. 251255.

19 Initially there were 217 subjects in our experiment but nine were dropped because of missing data on one or more of the questionnaire items. Also, note that the F-levels reported in Table 1 as well as those in Tables 3 and 5 indicate that each variable makes a significant contribution to the explanatory power of the estimated equations. However, as is evident, from an examination of the standard errors reported in these tables, several of the estimated coefficients are not significantly different from zero. Hence, care must be taken not to attribute too much to the exact values of the coefficients.

20 This is the standard party identification item used by the Survey Research Center, University of Michigan, for their Presidential Election Studies.

21 For the purposes of our experiment, we have called respondents “intense” when they recorded their feelings in position 1, 2, 6, or 7 on our seven-point scales:

This measurement technique is very similar to the one employed by Martin Fishbein to measure the “evaluative aspects of belief statements.” See, Fishbein, and Coombs, , “Basis for Decision,” p. 12.

22 For the “Honesty in Government” question, a respondent was called “intense” if a 6 or 7 was marked on the item.

23 For related speculation, see Banfield, Edward, Political Influence (New York: The Free Press, 1961), p. 259.

24 The best statement of the convergence model is given by Downs, Economic Theory of Democracy. Multidimensional versions of this model are presented in Otto Davis et al., “Development of a Mathematical Model.” For a demonstration of divergence in the 1968 presidential election, see Page, Benjamin I., “Presidential Campaigning, Party Cleavage, and Responsible Parties,” unpublished paper, University of Chicago, 1974.

25 Wilson, James Q. and Banfield, Edward, “Political Ethos Revisited,” American Political Science Review, 65 (12, 1971), 10481062. See also, McClosky, Herbert, “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics,” American Political Science Review, 58 (06, 1964), 361382, showing that more political leaders than followers advocate clean government.

On the relationship between economic conditions and voting, see Kramer, Gerald K., “Short-Term Fluctuations in U.S. Voting Behavior, 1896–1964,” American Political Science Review, 65 (03, 1971), 131143.

26 For attempts to explain recent trends concerning trust in government, see Miller, Arthur H., “Political Issues and Trust in Government: 1964–1970,” American Political Science Review, 68 (09, 1974), 951972, and Citrin, Jack, “Comment: The Political Relevance of Trust in Government,” American Political Science Review, 68 (09, 1974), 973988.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, Illinois, September, 1974. The authors would like to thank John Ferejohn, John Gardiner, Susan Hansen, Lyman Kellstedt, Benjamin Page, Harry Scoble, Lester Seligman, Donley Studlar, Beatrice Villar, and Susan Welch for critical comments and suggestions relevant to drafts of this paper.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed