Skip to main content

The Electoral Implications of Candidate Ambiguity


Candidates often make ambiguous statements about the policies they intend to pursue. In theory, ambiguity affects how voters make choices and who wins elections. In practice, measurement and endogeneity problems have impeded empirical research about the consequences of ambiguity. We conducted survey experiments that overcame these obstacles by manipulating a common form of ambiguity: the imprecision of candidate positions. Our data show that, on average, ambiguity does not repel and may, in fact, attract voters. In nonpartisan settings, voters who have neutral or positive attitudes toward risk, or who feel uncertain about their own policy preferences, tend to embrace ambiguity. In partisan settings, voters respond even more positively to ambiguity; they optimistically perceive the locations of ambiguous candidates from their own party without pessimistically perceiving the locations of vague candidates from the opposition. We further find, through analysis of two additional new data sets, that candidates often take—and voters frequently perceive—ambiguous positions like the ones in our experiments. The pervasive use of ambiguity in campaigns fits with our experimental finding that ambiguity can be a winning strategy, especially in partisan elections.

Corresponding author
Michael Tomz is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Stanford University, Encina Hall West, Room 100, Stanford, CA 94305-6044 (
Robert P. Van Houweling is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley, 210 Barrows Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720 (
Hide All
Aldrich, John H. 1995. Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Aldrich, John H., Niemi, Richard G., Rabinowitz, George, and Rohde, David W.. 1982. “The Measurement of Public Opinion about Public Policy: A Report on Some New Issue Question Formats.American Journal of Political Science 26 (2): 391414.
Alesina, Alberto, and Cukierman, Alex. 1990. “The Politics of Ambiguity.Quarterly Journal of Economics 105 (4): 829–50.
Alvarez, R. Michael. 1998. Information and Elections. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Alvarez, R. Michael, and Franklin, Charles H.. 1994. “Uncertainty and Political Perceptions.Journal of Politics 56 (3): 671–88.
Aragones, Enriqueta, and Neeman, Zvika. 2000. “Strategic Ambiguity in Electoral Competition.Journal of Theoretical Politics 112 (2): 183205.
Bartels, Larry M. 1986. “Issue Voting Under Uncertainty: An Empirical Test.American Journal of Political Science 30 (4): 709–28.
Bartels, Larry M. 1988. Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bendor, Jonathan, and Meirowitz, Adam. 2004. “Spatial Models of Delegation.American Political Science Review 98 (2): 293310.
Berinsky, Adam J., and Lewis, Jeffrey B.. 2007. “An Estimate of Risk Aversion in the U.S. Electorate.Quarterly Journal of Political Science 2 (2): 139–54.
Brady, Henry E., and Ansolabehere, Steven. 1989. “The Nature of Utility Functions in Mass Publics.American Political Science Review 83 (1): 143–63.
Callander, Steven, and Wilson, Catherine H.. 2008. “Context-Dependent Voting and Political Ambiguity.Journal of Public Economics 92 (3–4): 565–81.
Campbell, James E. 1983. “The Electoral Consequences of Issue Ambiguity: An Examination of the Presidential Candidates' Issue Positions from 1968 to 1980.Political Behavior 5 (3): 277–91.
Chester, Lewis, Hodgson, Godfrey, and Page, Bruce. 1969. An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968. New York: Viking.
Enelow, James, and Hinich, Melvin J.. 1981. “A New Approach To Voter Uncertainty in the Downsian Spatial Model.American Journal of Political Science 25 (3): 483–93.
Gill, Jeff. 2005. “An Entropy Measure of Uncertainty in Vote Choice.Electoral Studies 24 (3): 371–92.
Irwin, Francis. 1953. “Stated Expectations as Functions of Probability and Desirability of Outcomes.Journal of Personality 21 (3): 329–35.
Krosnick, Jon A. 2002. “The Challenges of Political Psychology: Lessons to be Learned from Research on Attitude Perception.” In Thinking about Political Psychology, ed. Kuklinski, James H.. New York: Cambridge University Press, 115–52.
Meirowitz, Adam. 2005. “Informational Party Primaries and Strategic Ambiguity.Journal of Theoretical Politics 17 (1): 107–36.
Mendelberg, Tali. 2001. The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Morgenstern, Scott, and Zechmeister, Elizabeth. 2001. “Better the Devil You Know Than the Saint You Don't? Risk Propensity and Vote Choice in Mexico.Journal of Politics 63 (1): 93119.
Page, Benjamin I. 1976. “The Theory of Political Ambiguity.American Political Science Review 70 (3): 742–52.
Rosenhan, David, and Messick, Samuel. 1966. “Affect and Expectation.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3 (1): 3844.
Shepsle, Kenneth A. 1972. “The Strategy of Ambiguity: Uncertainty and Electoral Competition.American Political Science Review 66 (2): 555–68.
Tomz, Michael, and Van Houweling, Robert P.. 2008. “Candidate Positioning and Voter Choice.American Political Science Review 102 (3): 303–18.
Webster, Donna M., and Kruglanski, Arie W.. 1994. “Individual Differences in Need for Cognitive Closure.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67 (6): 1049–62.
Weisberg, Herbert F., and Fiorina, Morris P.. 1980. “Candidate Preference under Uncertainty: An Expanded View of Rational Voting.” In The Electorate Reconsidered, eds. Pierce, John C. and Sullivan, John L.. Beverly Hills: Sage, 237–56.
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: 4
Total number of PDF views: 200 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 589 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th April 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.