When Clientelism Backfires: Vote Buying, Democratic Attitudes, and Electoral Retaliation in Latin America

AuthorRyan E. Carlin,Mason W. Moseley
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211020126
Vote buying—the exchange of excludable material goods
for votes—pervades electoral politics in many democra-
cies. Yet converting targeted electoral benefits into votes
is imperfect, creating wide “effectiveness gaps” in some
cases (Kitschelt and Altamirano 2015). Distributive poli-
tics scholars attribute this “leaky bucket” phenomenon
(Dixit and Londregan 1996) to, among other things,
party system dynamics (Kitschelt and Altamirano 2015),
party-broker principal–agent problems (Szwarcberg
2015), and programmatic campaigns (Greene 2021). But
they ignore a potentially integral piece of the puzzle:
voters might actually punish parties that target them for
electoral rewards. Given high electoral volatility (Cohen,
Salles Kobilanski, and Zechmeister 2018; Hicken and
Kuhonta 2015; Riedl 2014), widespread sanctioning of
corrupt politicians (Klašnja, Tucker, and Deegan-Krause
2016; Manzetti and Rosas 2015), and significant rates of
invalid voting in many developing contexts (Cohen
2018; Power and Garand 2007), this thesis warrants due
Probing more deeply, we ask: who is most likely to
retaliate against vote buyers, and what retaliatory actions
might they take? We theorize that targeting “demo-
crats”—voters committed to democratic governance and
norms—can fuel acts of negative reciprocity such as vot-
ing against vote-buying parties or casting an invalid
ballot. Results from a case study of Argentina, including
a within-case study of dominant-party provinces, and
regional evidence from Latin America are consistent with
this proposition. Our results are compatible with our pro-
posed causal mechanism: being targeted for vote buying
triggers democrats to retaliate by raising their perceptions
of political corruption.
As such, this study makes several contributions. To the
study of clientelism, it supplements macro-level accounts
of the “leaky bucket” with compelling micro-level theory
and evidence of voter agency. Our findings also comple-
ment the consensus that party operatives seek to target
rewards with surgical precision by showing the high
stakes of propositioning bad targets. Results for negative
reciprocity fit with theories that connect vote buying with
social preferences for positive reciprocity (Finan and
Schechter 2012; Lawson and Greene 2014) and trust
(Rueda, n.d.). And because negative reciprocity is the
workhorse of social norm maintenance in evolutionary
20126PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211020126Political Research QuarterlyCarlin and Moseley
1Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
2West Virginia University, Morgantown, USA
Corresponding Author:
Mason W. Moseley, West Virginia University, 316 Woodburn Hall,
P.O. Box 6317, Morgantown, WV 26506-6317, USA.
Email: mwmoseley@mail.wvu.edu
When Clientelism Backfires: Vote
Buying, Democratic Attitudes, and
Electoral Retaliation in Latin America
Ryan E. Carlin1 and Mason W. Moseley2
Attempting to buy votes is, in some cases, inefficient and damaging to a clientelistic party. To explain why, we propose
the concept of electoral retaliation: sanctioning clientelistic parties by voting against them or intentionally invalidating
the ballot. These forms of negative reciprocity are meant to uphold the democratic norms—equal participation,
popular sovereignty, electoral fairness—that vote buying undermines. Electoral retaliation is, we theorize, the domain
of “democrats.” Thus, we expect voters who highly value democratic norms to be most likely to retaliate against
vote-buying parties. We test our theory’s observable implications with a research design that pairs case study and
subnational evidence from Argentina with cross-national evidence from Latin America. Results are consistent with the
notion that when clientelistic parties target democrats, it is likely to backfire on the machine. Our analyses examine
multiple indicators of democratic support, explore causal mechanisms, conduct placebo tests, and seek to rule out
various forms of selection bias.
clientelism, vote buying, political behavior, democratic attitudes, prosocial norms, Latin America
2022, Vol. 75(3) 766–781
Carlin and Moseley 767
models of prosociality (Bowles and Gintis 2011; Henrich
et al. 2006), electoral retaliation to maintain democratic
norms is precisely what this line of theorizing would
To the study of accountability, electoral retaliation
represents a new form of sanctioning. Social contract
theorists such as Locke, Mill, and the Federalists argue
sanctioning—rewarding or punishing elected officials
with the ballot—promotes accountability. Voters elector-
ally retaliate to hold elected officials to account not for
poor representation or performance but, rather, for violat-
ing fundamental democratic norms of electoral fairness,
political equality, and popular sovereignty. Electoral
retaliation thus parallels research on the electoral effects
of violating other democratic norms, such as corruption
(e.g., Manzetti and Rosas 2015) and electoral integrity
(e.g., Norris 2014).
Below, we identify an undercurrent of moral disgust
with vote buying in prior work before presenting our the-
ory of electoral retaliation. From there, we describe our
multipronged empirical strategy and test our theory’s
observable implications. Each stage of our analysis offers
strong support for the key predictions of our theory.
Results pass multiple robustness tests. Our conclusion
discusses this study’s theoretical contributions.
Who Rejects Vote Buying?
Building clientelistic networks around patronage and
vote buying is a venerable method of linking political
parties to voters (see review in Mares and Young 2016).
Yet its effectiveness varies and even fails among certain
classes of voters, for various reasons. A common thread
is that vote buying offends some citizens’ democratic
Of the many accounts focused on wealth, some hinge
on logics orthogonal to citizens’ underlying democratic
orientations, such as the rich rejecting vote buying because
of low marginal returns (Dixit and Londregan 1996) or the
poor who are excluded from clientelism punishing clien-
telistic parties (Mares and Young 2019). And machine
parties diversify their electoral strategies to deliver
concrete policies to affluent voters and “non-policy”
material inducements to poorer constituents (Calvo and
Murillo 2019). But attitudinal factors are implicit in other
socioeconomic accounts that suggest vote buying may be
offensive to some classes of voters. When targeting poor
voters, one Argentine broker interviewed by Zarazaga
(2014, 10) notes, “You have to help the poor but be careful
not to make it look like clientelism. Nobody likes being
used.” Parties may also avoid targeting middle-class vot-
ers for fear of reprisal because they view clientelism as a
red flag for governance (Weitz-Shapiro 2014). Democratic
values may, thus, underlie the expected reactions of both
the poor and the middle class.
More explicitly, information theories highlight that
support for democratic norms, ideals, and governance can
undermine vote buying (F. C. Schaffer 2007). Civic edu-
cation campaigns and greater voter sophistication reduce
the effectiveness of vote buying in Taiwan (Fox 1994), as
do leaflets exhorting citizens to vote their conscience,
even if they accept electoral benefits in São Tomé and
Príncipe (Vicente 2014). The twin rise of newspapers and
literacy in Britain and the United States allowed political
parties to make programmatic appeals to the masses
(Stokes et al. 2013), and these dynamics have also trans-
formed would-be clients into autonomous voters in
Mexico (Greene 2021). Formal education undercuts vote
buying because “[v]oters with higher levels of education
are better equipped to see the system-level problems and
have access to more sources of political information dis-
cussing the societal costs of vote buying” (Gonzalez
Ocantos, Kiewiet de Jonge, and Nickerson 2014, 201).
Vote buying thus carries a “social stigma” for the most
educated voters because they know its pernicious, if
abstract, social and democratic effects (ibid).
Negative normative or moral reactions to the perver-
sion of democratic norms and governance are common
denominators to these and related studies (e.g., Carreras
and İrepoğlu 2013). Vicente (2014, 385) claims anti-vote
buying campaigns work due to an “increase in voting
in good conscience.” Most Nigerians, Bratton (2008, 1)
posits, regard vote selling as an “[infraction] of public
morality.” F. C. Schaffer and Schedler (2007, 16) argue
that some Latin Americans see vote buying offers as
an affront; “to accept an offer would damage ones’ self-
respect.” And Weitz-Shapiro (2014) links moral repug-
nance to wealthier Argentines’ rejection of clientelistic
parties. Kitschelt and Kselman (2013, 1459) even predict
that as democracy and party competition stabilize,
more voters will begin to take offense at the political
inequality resulting from clientelism, namely, that those
with access to large-scale state or private resources can
commandeer vast numbers of votes, voiding the regulative
democratic fiction of “one voter, one vote.”
In sum, vote trafficking contradicts some voters’ concep-
tions of democratic citizenship.
Electoral Retaliation as Democratic
Norm Maintenance
If this tension between vote trafficking and democratic
citizenship translates into a sense of vengeance, it should
have important behavioral implications. Specifically,
support for democratic norms and governance may con-
dition voter reactions to electoral incentives and, in turn,
fuel retaliatory voting behavior. Building to such a the-
ory, we conceptualize electoral retaliation and describe

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