Skip to main content

Campaign Cost and Electoral Accountability*

  • Carlo Prato and Stephane Wolton

The increasing cost of political campaigns and its impact on the electoral process are issues of paramount importance in modern democracies. We propose a theory of electoral accountability in which candidates choose whether or not to commit to constituency service and whether or not to pay a campaign cost to advertise their platform. A higher campaign cost decreases voter welfare when partisan imbalance is low. However, when partisan imbalance is high, a higher campaign cost is associated with a higher expected level of constituency service. More costly campaigns can thus have a rebalancing effect that improves electoral accountability. We discuss the implications of our findings for campaign finance regulation and present empirical evidence consistent with our key predictions.

Hide All

Carlo Prato, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Economics and Government Departments, Georgetown University, 305K ICC 3700 O St NW, Washington DC 20057 ( Stephane Wolton, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Government, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK ( The authors would like to thank two anonymous referees, Mike Bailey, Aditya Bhave, Peter Buisseret, Chris Berry (who also graciously shared the data with authors), Chris Cotton, John de Figueredo, Alex Hirsch, Navin Kartik, John Patty, Mattias Polborn, as well as seminar and presentation participants at Princeton, Georgetown, IAS, APSA, MPSA and SPSA for their helpful comments. Neil Christy provided excellent research assistance. C.P. gratefully acknowledges the support of the Hoover Institution. The data on political advertising were obtained from a project of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project includes media tracking data from TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group in Washington, DC. The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project was sponsored by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project or The Pew Charitable Trusts. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit

Hide All
Abramowitz, Alan I., Alexander, Brad, and Gunning, Matthew. 2006. ‘Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections’. Journal of Politics 68(1):7588.
Albouy, David. 2009. ‘The Unequal Geographic Burden of Federal Taxation’. Journal of Political Economy 117(4):635667.
Ansolabehere, Stephen, de Figueiredo, John M., and Snyder, James M. Jr. 2003. ‘Why is There So Little Money in US Politics?’. Journal of Economic Perspectives 17(1):105130.
Ansolabehere, Stephen, Tripathi, Micky, and Snyder, James M. Jr. 2002. ‘Are PAC Contributions and Lobbying Linked? New Evidence from the 1995 Lobby Disclosure Act’. Business and Politics 4(2):131155.
Aragonès, Enriqueta, and Xefteris, Dimitrios. 2012. ‘Candidate Quality in a Downsian Model With a Continuous Policy Space’. Games and Economic Behavior 75(2):464480.
Aragones, Enriqueta, and Palfrey, Thomas R.. 2002. ‘Mixed Equilibrium in a Downsian Model With a Favored Candidate’. Journal of Economic Theory 103(1):131161.
Ashworth, Scott. 2005. ‘Reputational Dynamics and Political Careers’. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 21(2):441466.
Ashworth, Scott. 2006. ‘Campaign Finance and Voter Welfare With Entrenched Incumbents’. American Political Science Review 100(1):5568.
Ashworth, Scott, and de Mesquita, Ethan Bueno. 2006. ‘Delivering the Goods: Legislative Particularism in Different Electoral and Institutional Settings’. Journal of Politics 68(1):168179.
Austen-Smith, David. 1987. ‘Interest Groups, Campaign Contributions, and Probabilistic Voting’. Public Choice 54:123139.
Bailey, Michael. 2004. ‘The (Sometimes Surprising) Consequences of Societally Unrepresentative Contributors on Legislative Responsiveness’. Business and Politics 6(3):134.
Berry, Christopher R., Burden, Barry C., and Howell, William G.. 2010. ‘The President and the Distribution of Federal Spending’. American Political Science Review 104:783799.
Bhattacharya, Sourav. 2014. ‘Campaign Rhetoric and the Hide & Seek Game’. Unpublished manuscript, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.
Bun, Maurice J., and Harrison, Teresa D.. 2014. ‘OLS and IV Estimation of Regression Models Including Endogenous Interaction Terms’. Discussion Paper No. 2014/2, Amsterdam School of Economics, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Cain, Bruce E., Ferejohn, John A., and Fiorina, Morris P.. 1984. ‘The Constituency Service Basis of the Personal Vote for US Representatives and British Members of Parliament’. American Political Science Review 78(1):110125.
Calvert, Randall L. 1985. ‘Robustness of the Multidimensional Voting Model: Candidate Motivations, Uncertainty, and Convergence’. American Journal of Political Science 29(1):6995.
Coate, Stephen. 2004. ‘Pareto-Improving Campaign Finance Policy’. The American Economic Review 94(3):628655.
Cohen, Richard. 2012. ‘Cash’s Powerful Megaphone’. The Washington Post. Available at, accessed 16 January 2012.
Daley, Brendan, and Snowberg, Erik. 2009. ‘Even If It is Not Bribery: The Case for Campaign Finance Reform’. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 27(2):324349.
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.
Druckman, James N., Kifer, Martin J., and Parkin, Michael. 2009. ‘Campaign Communications in U.S. Congressional Elections’. American Political Science Review 103:343366.
Egan, Patrick J. 2014. ‘“Do Something” Politics and Double-Peaked Policy Preferences’. The Journal of Politics 76:333349.
Franz, Michael M., Freedman, Paul B., Goldstein, Kenneth M., and Ridout, Travis N.. 2007. Campaign Advertising and American Democracy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Goldstein, Kenneth, and Rivlin, Joel. 2007. ‘Presidential, Congressional and Gubernatiorial Advertising 2003–2004’, final release, combined file. The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, The Department of Political Science at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA.
Grimmer, Justin. 2013a. ‘Appropriators Not Position Takers: The Distorting Effects of Electoral Incentives on Congressional Representation’. American Journal of Political Science 57(3):624642.
Grimmer, Justin M. 2013b. Representational Style in Congress. What Legislators Say and Why It Matters. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Grimmer, Justin, Messing, Solomon, and Westwood, Sean J.. 2012. ‘How Words and Money Cultivate a Personal Vote: The Effect of Legislator Credit Claiming on Constituent Credit Allocation’. American Political Science Review 106(4):703719.
Groseclose, Tim. 2001. ‘A Model of Candidate Location When One Candidate Has a Valence Advantage’. American Journal of Political Science 45(4):862886.
Gross, Donald A., Goidel, Robert K., and Shields, Todd G.. 2002. ‘State Campaign Finance-Regulations and Electoral Competition’. American Politics Research 30(2):143165.
Grossman, Gene M., and Helpman, Elhanan. 1996. ‘Electoral Competition and Special Interest Politics’. The Review of Economic Studies 63(2):265286.
Hagen, Michael G., and Kolodny, Robin. 2008. ‘Finding the Cost of Campaign Advertising’. Forum (2194-6183) 6(1):114.
Hall, Richard L., and Deardorff, Alan V.. 2006. ‘Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy’. The American Political Science Review 100(1):6984.
Jacobson, Gary C. 1980. Money in Congressional Elections. New Haven: Yale University Press.
JORF. 2008. ‘Publication Des Décisions de la Commission Nationale Des Comptes De Champagne Et Des Financements Politiques Relatives Aux Comptes De Campagne Des Candidats À L’élection Présidentielle Des 22 Avril Et 6 Mai 2007’. Journal Officiel de la République Francaise 74(0008):557.
Kennedy, Peter E. 1981. ‘Estimation With Correctly Interpreted Dummy Variables in Semilogarithmic Equations’. American Economic Review 71(4):801.
Levitt, Steven D., and Snyder, James M. Jr. 1997. ‘The Impact of Federal Spending on House Election Outcomes’. The Journal of Political Economy 105(1):30.
McAfee, R. Preston, and McMillan, John. 1987. ‘Auctions With Entry’. Economics Letters 23(4):343347.
Meirowitz, Adam. 2008. ‘Electoral Contests, Incumbency Advantages and Campaign Finance’. Journal of Politics 27(3):681699.
Monson, J. Quin, and Curtis, Stephanie P.. 2003. ‘Appendix B–Methodology’. In eSymposium: The Noncandidate Campaign: Soft Money and Issue Advocacy in the 2002 Congressional Elections. Washington: American Political Science Association.
Persson, Torsten, and Tabellini, Guido. 2000. Political Economics: Explaining Economic Policy. Cambrdige: The MIT Press.
Prat, Andrea. 2002. ‘Campaign Advertising and Voter Welfare’. The Review of Economic Studies 69(4):9991017.
Prato, Carlo, and Wolton, Stephane. 2015. ‘The Voters’ Curses: Why We Need Goldilocks Voters’. American Journal of Political Science. Available at
Prior, Markus. 2001. ‘Weighted Content Analysis of Political Advertisements’. Political Communication 18(3):335345.
Ringquist, Evan J., and Dasse, Carl. 2004. ‘Lies, Damned Lies, and Campaign Promises? Environmental Legislation in the 105th Congress’. Social Science Quarterly 85(2):400419.
Roosevelt, Theodore. 1912. ‘A Charter of Democracy: Address by Hon. Theodore Roosevelt, Ex-President of the United States, Before the Ohio Constitutional Convention on February 21, 1912’. [U.S.] 62d Congress, 2nd session Senate. Doc.348 Govt. print. off.
Samuelson, William F. 1985. ‘Competitive Bidding With Entry Costs’. Economics Letters 17(1–2):5357.
Smith, Bradley A. 1996. ‘Faulty Assumptions and Undemocratic Consequences of Campaign Finance Reform’. The Yale Law Journal 105(4):10491091.
Snyder, James M., and Strömberg, David. 2010. ‘Press Coverage and Political Accountability’. Journal of Political Economy 118(2):355408.
Sorauf, Frank J. 1992. ‘Politics and Money’. The American Behavioral Scientist (1986-1994) 35(6):725734.
Stewart, C. 2011. Analyzing Congress. Charles: W. W. Norton & Company.
Stewart, Charles, and Groseclose, Tim. 1999. ‘The Value of Committee Seats in the United States Senate, 1947-91’. American Journal of Political Science 43(3):963973.
Stewart, Charles, and Groseclose, Timothy. 1998. ‘The Value of Committee Seats in the House, 1947-1991’. American Journal of Political Science 42:453474.
Strömberg, David. 2004. ‘Radio’s Impact on Public Spending’. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 119(1):189221.
Sulkin, Tracy. 2009. ‘Campaign Appeals and Legislative Action’. Journal of Politics 71(3):10931108.
Sulkin, Tracy, and Swigger, Nathaniel. 2008. ‘Is There Truth in Advertising? Campaign Ad Images as Signals About Legislative Behavior’. Journal of Politics 70(1):232244.
Sullivan, Kathleen M. 1998. ‘Against Campaign Finance Reform’. Utah Law Review, 311–29.
Wittman, Donald. 1983. ‘Candidate Motivation: A Synthesis of Alternative Theories’. American Political Science Review 77(1):142157.
Recommend this journal

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

Political Science Research and Methods
  • ISSN: 2049-8470
  • EISSN: 2049-8489
  • URL: /core/journals/political-science-research-and-methods
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Prato and Wolton supplementary material
Prato and Wolton supplementary material 1

 PDF (301 KB)
301 KB


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