Too Crooked to be Good? Trade-offs in the Electoral Punishment of Malfeasance and Corruption

With Sofia Breiteinstein

Corrupt politicians are frequently re-elected. A potential explanation for this paradox is that citizens trade integrity for competence. Voters might forgive corruption when crooked politicians manage to get the job done and deliver desirable outcomes. This paper assesses what citizens treasure the most: integrity or favorable outcomes. Drawing on a survey experiment, we examine citizens’ support for politicians that violate the law to achieve an optimal societal outcome and that, in some cases, also obtain a private gain through this violation. The results indicate that participants prefer a politician who follows the law, even if that leads to a suboptimal outcome. However, voters are more likely to overlook malfeasance if the violation of the law does not yield a private gain for the politician. Citizens’ distinctive reaction to these violations can explain the mild punishment of corruption at the polls, at a time where the private benefits of malfeasance are rarely known.

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