Do voters affect or elect policies? Evidence from the U. S. house

David S. Lee, Enrico Moretti, Matthew J. Butler

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

364 Scopus citations


There are two fundamentally different views of the role of elections in policy formation. In one view, voters can affect candidates' policy choices: competition for votes induces politicians to move toward the center. In this view, elections have the effect of bringing about some degree of policy compromise. In the alternative view, voters merely elect policies: politicians cannot make credible promises to moderate their policies, and elections are merely a means to decide which one of two opposing policy views will be implemented. We assess which of these contrasting perspectives is more empirically relevant for the U. S. House. Focusing on elections decided by a narrow margin allows us to generate quasi-experimental estimates of the impact of a "randomized" change in electoral strength on subsequent representatives' roll-call voting records. We find that voters merely elect policies: the degree of electoral strength has no effect on a legislator's voting behavior. For example, a large exogenous increase in electoral strength for the Democratic party in a district does not result in shifting both parties' nominees to the left. Politicians' inability to credibly commit to a compromise appears to dominate any competition-induced convergence in policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)807-860
Number of pages54
JournalQuarterly Journal of Economics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2004
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Economics and Econometrics


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