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Testing Models of Distributive Politics using Exit Polls to Measure Voters’ Preferences and Partisanship

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 November 2012


This article tests several hypotheses about distributive politics by studying the distribution of federal spending across US states over the period 1978–2002. It improves on previous work by using survey data to measure the share of voters in each state that are Democrats, Republicans and Independents, or liberals, conservatives and moderates. No evidence is found that the allocation of federal spending to the states is distorted by strategic manipulation to win electoral support. States with many swing voters are not advantaged compared to states with more loyal voters, and ‘battleground states’ are not advantaged compared to other states. Spending appears to have little or no effect on voters’ choices, while partisanship and ideology have large effects.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012 

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Department of Government and STICERD, London School of Economics and Political Science (email:; Department of Government, Harvard University, and NBER; and Department of Economics, Royal Holloway University of London, Erasmus University (Rotterdam) and Tinbergen Institute, respectively. We thank participants of seminars at LSE, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Cambridge, Oxford, Bocconi, Warwick, Ferrara and Pavia. We are grateful to James Alt, Ciro Biderman, John Patty, Albert Sole’ Olle and Vera Troeger for useful comments and suggestions and to Indraneel Sircar for dedicated research assistance. The usual caveat applies. James Snyder gratefully acknowledges the financial support of National Science Foundation Grant SES-0079035. Data and replication material is available at the Dataverse Archive: An online appendix containing additional information is available at:


1 Most previous studies acknowledge this problem and tend to use lagged values of the vote to mitigate the problem somewhat, but this method is, at best, a partial solution, as we will discuss later.

2 To our knowledge, only one previous study (Matz Dahlberg and Eva Johansson, ‘On the Vote Purchasing Behavior of Incumbent Governments’, American Political Science Review, 96 (2002), 27–40) uses survey data for a similar purpose. They use the Swedish Election Study to construct a measure of the percentage of swing voters in Swedish regions and then analyse a specific spending program of ecological grants.

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45 For example, officially measured unemployment figures do not count discouraged workers who are outside the working force; official immigration figures do not include undocumented aliens.

46 Researchers, including ourselves, are often less than fully satisfied with the results from simulation exercises when they do not provide a clear intuition. This is not a weakness of simulations per se, but a ‘weakness’ of complicated models.

47 Lindbeck and Weibull, ‘Balanced-Budget Redistribution as the Outcome of Political Competition’.

48 Dixit, Avinash and Londregan, John, ‘Redistributive Politics and Economic Efficiency’, American Political Science Review, 89 (1995), 856–66 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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49 Dixit and Londregan, ‘The Determinants of Success of Special Interests in Redistributive Politics’; Cox and McCubbins, ‘Electoral Politics as a Redistributive Game’.

50 Milligan and Smart, ‘Regional Grants as Pork Barrel Politics’.

51 Colantoni, Levesque and Ordeshook, ‘Campaign Resource Allocation Under the Electoral College’.

52 Stromberg, ‘How the Electoral College Influences Campaigns and Policy’.

53 This formulation does not do justice to some of these models, such as Stromberg, ‘How the Electoral College Influences Campaigns and Policy’, which takes into account the total probability that a state is ‘pivotal’ in the electoral college.

54 Wright, ‘The Political Economy of New Deal Spending’.

55 Trending partisanship could also produce a large standard deviation of ${{\tilde{V}}^D} $, which is a potential problem.

56 Dahlberg and Johansson, ‘On the Vote Purchasing Behavior of Incumbent Governments’.

57 Rather than reporting all possible specifications, we focus on ${{{\mathop{\hat\alpha }\limits^{}} }_I} $ and ${{{\mathop{\hat\alpha }\limits^{}} }_C} $ in Cases 1 and 2, and on ${{{\mathop{\hat\alpha }\limits^{}} }_P} $ in Cases 3 and 4. However, we always report the results for the case in which all variables are included. We also ran simulations that incorporate measurement error into the ‘direct’ measure of voters’ partisanship – that is, in the share of independent variable Ij. In these simulations the estimated coefficient on the term measured with error $ ({{\hat{a}}_I}) $ is biased toward zero. This is the usual attenuation bias associated with regressors that are measured with error. The other coefficients are almost unaffected, however. Results of these simulations are in Appendix Table A.1, which can be found in the Supplementary Material of this paper, at

58 Interest on the debt is not included in any of the dependent variables.

59 Voter News Service is an association of ABC News, CNN, CBS News, FOX News, NBC News and the Associated Press.

60 In addition, voters are asked a series of questions about their demographic and socio-economic characteristics, questions about the reasons for their vote choice, and, sometimes, questions about salient policy issues.

61 One possible alternative, at least for partisanship, is to use party registration data. However, this would sharply reduce the sample of states (probably in a non-random way), since only twenty-nine states have party registration.

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64 This is consistent with the findings of Green, Palmquist and Schickler, Partisan Hearts and Minds and Goren, ‘Party Identification and Core Political Values’.

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67 Of course, not all respondents have a Senate race in which to vote, and in midterm years no respondents have a presidential race in which to vote.

68 Each respondent could vote in six or seven races – two presidential races and three House races, and either one or two Senate races.

69 Results are available from the authors upon request.

70 We constructed analogous variables using the party affiliation of the majority in the house (House majority copartisans) and senate (Senate majority copartisans) as well as the political affiliation of state senators (Senator Copartisans). The results are substantively the same as those obtained in the case of presidential affiliation. We do not report them here, but they are available from the authors upon request.

71 When we use presidential term as the time unit, instead of a dummy for natural disasters, we include the share of the term that contained years in which a natural disaster occurred: possible values are therefore 0, 0.25, 0.5, 0.75 and 1. The total population size captures the effects of malapportionment of the US Senate, as small states are extremely over-represented. It may, however, also capture budgetary lags. Because of ‘incremental budgeting’, population growth is likely to negatively affect per-capita expenditure levels. If there are lags in adjusting the allocation of transfers to population shifts, then as a state's population grows its per-capita transfers will automatically fall. Economies of scale might also lead to a negative effect of population on per-capita transfers.

72 We do not include variables to measure committee positions or seniority. Previous studies have found little or no evidence that these variables are important determinants of aggregate spending in states or districts. See Owens and Wade, ‘Federal Spending in Congressional Districts’; Ritt, ‘Committee Position, Seniority, and the Distribution of Government Expenditures’; Levitt and Snyder, ‘Political Parties and the Distribution of Federal Outlays’.

73 Results are available from the authors upon request.

74 Detailed results are available in the online appendix.

75 Another concern is that federal expenditure could be spatially autocorrelated. To deal with this possibility, we have included census division dummies and division-specific trends in the specifications that do not include state fixed effects. When state fixed effects are included we only add division-specific trends. Since these modifications only marginally change our results, in the interest of space we do not include the tables in the article. Results are available in the online appendix.

76 For a within-state standard deviation (with time units given by presidential terms) of approximately 4 per cent, we get an increased federal spending of $17.20, which represents only 0.5 per cent of average per-capita federal spending ($3,100).

77 Converse, ‘The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics’; Green, Palmquist and Schickler, Partisan Hearts and Minds.

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79 Assuming that voters are rational, retrospective and prospective voting are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. Rational retrospective voters, while using information about the past, are also forward looking because they reward/punish incumbents on the basis of their past performance in order to influence their future behaviour. Similarly, rational prospective voters are to some extent retrospective because they must look at implemented policy to verify that promises are kept. See Timothy Besley, Principled Agents? The Political Economy of Good Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

80 Marco Manacorda, Edward Miguel and Andrea Vigorito, ‘Government Transfers and Political Support’, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 3 (2011), 1–28; Cristian Pop-Eleches and Grigore Pop-Eleches, ‘Government Spending and Pocketbook Voting: Quasi-Experimental Evidence from Romania’, unpublished manuscript, 2010.

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82 We evaluated how well self-reported individual vote choices aggregate to predict actual state-level electoral results. This is a potential problem for any survey-based analysis of voting decisions. The correlation between the results predicted by the exit poll data and the actual electoral results is over 0.79.

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84 Although the estimates reported in Table 4 assume that all voters should be affected in the same way by the receipt of federal funds, this is not necessarily the case. Hence, we have considered specifications that introduce interactions between the spending variables and the partisanship and ideological variables. The results suggest that heterogeneous responses are sometimes possible, but that overall, these effects are hardly statistically significant, particularly considering the size of the sample.

85 See, for example, Robert M. Stein and Kenneth N. Bickers, ‘Congressional Elections and the Pork Barrel’, Journal of Politics, 56 (1994), 377–99; Levitt and Snyder, ‘Political Parties and the Distribution of Federal Outlays’.

86 Some other studies in the literature also find insignificant effects of state expenditure on voting, for example Besley, Principled Agents? The Political Economy of Good Government.

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93 Our results do not exclude the possibility that strategic distribution of funds might occur in particular years (such as pre-election years) when electoral concerns might be stronger. The hypothesis of a ‘political cycle’ in distributive politics is not considered by the large existing literature that we have revisited in our work, but it represents a very interesting avenue for future theoretical and empirical research on pork barrel spending.

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