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Beliefs and Voting Decisions: A Test of the Pivotal Voter Model

  • John Duffy
  • Margit Tavits

We report results from a laboratory experiment that provides the first direct test of the pivotal voter model. This model predicts that voters will rationally choose to vote only if their expected benefit from voting outweighs the cost. The expected benefit calculation involves the use of the voter’s subjective probability that s/he will be pivotal to the election outcome; this probability is typically unobservable. In one of our experimental treatments we elicit these subjective probabilities using a proper scoring rule that induces truthful revelation of beliefs. The cost of voting and the payoff to the election winner are known constants, so the subjective probabilities allow us to directly test the pivotal voter model. We find some support for the model: While a higher subjective probability of being pivotal does increase the likelihood that an individual chooses to vote, the decisiveness probability thresholds used by subjects are not as crisp as the theory would predict. We find some evidence that individuals learn over time to adjust their probabilities of being pivotal so that they are more consistent with the historical frequency of decisiveness, although such learning appears slow; many subjects\' assessments of their pivotalness remain substantially higher than is warranted by the electoral history.

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Paper provided by University of Pittsburgh, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number 273.

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Date of creation: Sep 2006
Date of revision: May 2007
Handle: RePEc:pit:wpaper:273
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  1. Jens Großer & Arthur Schram, 2004. "Neighborhood Information Exchange and Voter Participation: An Experimental Study," Working Paper Series in Economics 8, University of Cologne, Department of Economics, revised 29 Sep 2004.
  2. Schram, Arthur & Sonnemans, Joep, 1996. "Why people vote: Experimental evidence," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 17(4), pages 417-442, August.
  3. McKelvey Richard D. & Palfrey Thomas R., 1995. "Quantal Response Equilibria for Normal Form Games," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 10(1), pages 6-38, July.
  4. Anthony Downs, 1957. "An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 65, pages 135.
  5. Alan Gerber & Donald Green & Ron Shachar, 2003. "Voting may be habit forming: Evidence from a randomized field experiment," Natural Field Experiments 00251, The Field Experiments Website.
  6. Stephen Coate & Michael Conlin & Andrea Moro, 2004. "The Performance of the Pivotal-Voter Model in Small-Scale Elections: Evidence from Texas Liquor Referenda," NBER Working Papers 10797, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Sendhil Mullainathan & Marianne Bertrand, 2001. "Do People Mean What They Say? Implications for Subjective Survey Data," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(2), pages 67-72, May.
  8. Schram, Arthur & Sonnemans, Joep, 1996. "Voter Turnout as a Participation Game: An Experimental Investigation," International Journal of Game Theory, Springer, vol. 25(3), pages 385-406.
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