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The Strategy of Ambiguity: Uncertainty and Electoral Competition*

  • Kenneth A. Shepsle (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 August 2014

In this paper problems of social choice in general, and political choice in particular, are considered in light of uncertainty. The space of social alternatives in this formulation includes not only pure social states, but lotteries or probability distributions over those states as well. In the context of candidate strategy selection in a spatial model of political choice, candidate strategy sets are represented by pure strategies—points in the space of alternatives—and ambiguous strategies—lotteries over those points. Questions about optimal strategy choice and the equilibrium properties of these choices are then entertained. Duncan Black's theorem about the dominance of the median preference is generalized, and further contingencies in which the theorem is false are specified. The substantive foci of these results are: (1) the conditions in which seekers of political office will rationally choose to appear equivocal in their policy intentions; and (2) the role of institutional structure in defining equilibrium.

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Several closely related papers including the one presented here have benefitted from close readings and careful criticism by a number of people. For their efforts I acknowledge and thank Richard Niemi, Alvin Rabushka, William Riker, John Sprague, and Herbert Weisberg, as well as the anonymous referees of this paper. A Washington University Faculty Summer Research Grant provided time to prepare and revise various drafts of this paper.

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Kenneth J. Arrow , “Alternative Approaches to the Theory of Choice in Risk-Taking Situations,” Econometrica, 19 (101951), 404

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Donald E. Stokes , “Spatial Models of Party Competition,” American Political Science Review, 57 (061963), 368377 (quoted at p. 368)

Otto Davis , Melvin Hinich , and Peter Ordeshook , “An Expository Development of a Mathematical Model of the Electoral Process,” American Political Science Review, 64 (061970), 426448

Amartya Sen , “A Possibility Theorem on Majority Decisions,” Econometrica, 34 (041966), 491499

Gerald Garvey , “The Theory of Party Equilibrium,” American Political Science Review, 60 (031966), 2938

Robert Schoenberger , “Campaign Strategy and Party Loyalty: The Electoral Relevance of Candidate Decision-Making in the 1964 Congressional Elections,” American Political Science Review, 63 (061969), 515520 (quotation at pp. 519–520)

William H. Riker and Peter C. Ordeshook , “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting,” American Political Science Review, 62 (031968), 2542

Milton Friedman and L. J. Savage , “The Utility Analysis of Choices Involving Risk,” Journal of Political Economy, 56 (1948), 279304

Richard Zeckhauser , “Majority Rule with Lotteries on Alternatives,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 83 (111969), 696703

John W. Pratt , Howard Raiffa , and Robert Schlaifer , “The Foundations of Decision Under Uncertainty: An Elementary Exposition,” Journal of the American Statistics Association, 59 (1964), 353375

On the Power and Importance of the Mean Preference in a Mathematical Model of Democratic Choice,” Public Choice, 5 (Fall 1968), 5972

Kenneth A. Shepsle , “A Note on Zeckhauser's ‘Majority Rule with Lotteries on Alternatives’: The Case of the Paradox of Voting,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 84 (111970), 705710

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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