Looking the other way? Selective media exposure and the electoral punishment of corruption

With Macarena Ares and Sofia Breitenstein

Citizens are expected to punish corrupt politicians at the polls. In line with this presumption, lab and survey experiments consistently show that citizens are unlikely to vote for candidates that engage in corruption. At the same time, observational studies and field experiments frequently conclude that corrupt politicians are only mildly punished by voters.  This apparent contradiction could be a consequence of the design implemented in previous lab and survey experiments. In the real world, individuals tend to avoid and downplay information that challenges previously held beliefs, like their partisanship. An experimental design that randomly informs participants about corruption, and disregards the fact that citizens are prone to self-select information, is highly unrealistic and might lead to an overestimation of the electoral consequences of corruption. Unlike previous studies, this paper implements a Patient Preference Trial(PPT) experimental design in order to address the following question: how does information about corruption affect the likelihood of voting for corrupt politicians when accounting for information self-selection? Based on an online experiment conducted in Spain (N = 3,000), the PPT design allows us to estimate the electoral consequences of corruption accounting for the fact that citizens are able to overlook information about corruption from their preferred party, either by exposing themselves selectively to information about malfeasance from other parties or by avoiding information about corruption altogether. The PPT design increases ecological validity by explicitly modelling how citizens navigate information about malfeasance from different parties, while retaining the internal validity of fully randomized experiments. The results indicate that the electoral punishment of corruption is dependent on individuals’ informational preferences. The effects of being exposed to information on corruption are particularly large for individuals who avoid political information and prefer to read entertainment news. Effects are weaker among those who choose to be exposed to pro-attitudinal information. Finally, modelling selection allows us to compute a more realistic estimate of the electoral punishment of corruption.

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