Which Citizens Do Elected Officials Target With Distributive Spending? A Survey Experiment on U.S. Municipal Officials

Date01 September 2020
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(5) 579 –595
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20921372
The central premise of distributive politics is that politicians
target citizens with public spending to improve their elec-
toral prospects. But given that politicians do not have unlim-
ited access to such distributive goods, which types of
citizens do they target? Do they focus their efforts on core
supporters, those whose support for the politician is already
the strongest? Or do they use distributive spending to try to
woo swing voters, those whose loyalties are unclear? If poli-
ticians believe they can count on the support of their core
voters, then the obvious vote-maximizing strategy is to tar-
get swing voters (Lindbeck & Weibull, 1987). However, if
politicians are risk averse and uncertain as to how distribu-
tive spending will affect swing voters’ electoral behavior,
targeting core voters may be their safest bet (Cox &
McCubbins, 1986).
A complicating factor for a candidate deciding whether to
target core or swing voters is whether these citizens will
actually turn out to vote. If distributive goods only buy sup-
port and do not affect turnout, then politicians should target
citizens who are more likely to vote to minimize wasting
effort on nonvoters. However, if politicians believe that dis-
tributive spending has a mobilizing effect (Chen, 2013; De
La O, 2013; Matsubayashi & Jun-Deh, 2012), then they have
an additional incentive to target core supporters, particularly
core supporters who are less likely to turn out but have the
potential to do so if mobilized (Nichter, 2008).
The existing literature does not provide a clear answer to
these questions. Foundational theories make contradictory
predictions, while empirical results are mixed and rely on
research designs that are unable to identify intended target-
ing strategies from observable budget allocations.
It is on this latter point that I hope to contribute to this lit-
erature. To do so, I use a novel approach for the study of legis-
lative behavior: a survey experiment on elected municipal
officials from across the United States. This approach directly
measures the perceptions of the population of interest and pro-
vides causal evidence of politicians’ strategic decision-mak-
ing. In the survey experiment, respondents read a vignette
about a city councilor who must decide which of the two
neighborhoods to target with a local road repair project.
Respondents only know how the neighborhoods differ in
terms of two factors that are randomized across neighbor-
hoods: (a) the neighborhood’s support for the incumbent and
(b) its residents’ turnout propensity. The respondents are
instructed to advise the city councilor on which neighborhood
to target. In a follow-up experiment, respondents predict what
921372APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20921372American Politics ResearchDynes
1Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Adam M. Dynes, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Brigham Young
University, 745 Kimball Tower, Provo, UT 84602, USA.
Email: adamdynes@byu.edu
Which Citizens Do Elected Officials
Target With Distributive Spending?
A Survey Experiment on U.S.
Municipal Officials
Adam M. Dynes1
Research is mixed as to whether politicians target swing voters or core supporters with distributive spending and whether
citizens’ turnout affects this strategy. I use a novel data set and research design to examine this—a survey experiment on
elected municipal officials. Respondents indicated which of two neighborhoods to target with a local project. I find that local
officials, on average, target swing neighborhoods over core ones because they believe that swing voters are more likely than
core voters to electorally punish politicians for targeting other groups. Yet, a large proportion still target core voters but
not for reasons consistent with extant theory. Officials generally target high turnout neighborhoods over low turnout ones
but under certain conditions are also willing to target lower turnout citizens. These findings point to the need for ongoing
work to identify the conditions under which officials will target core or swing voters.
distributive politics, local politics, survey experiment
580 American Politics Research 48(5)
the electoral ramifications would be if the city councilor chose
one of the neighborhoods over the other. This setup allows for
an analysis of which types of voters policymakers believe are
the most electorally advantageous to target and why.
Overall, I find that policymakers target swing neighbor-
hoods over core ones and high turnout neighborhoods over
lower turnout ones. Although policymakers believe that dis-
tributive spending is a net benefit for an incumbent, regard-
less of which neighborhood is chosen, they target the swing
neighborhood over the core one because they believe that
swing voters, relative to core voters, are much more likely to
electorally punish incumbents for directing spending to other
groups. In short, policymakers believe they can take the sup-
port of core voters for granted. At the same time, support for
this swing voter strategy is not overwhelming. Nearly 43%
of respondents still targeted core supporters over swing vot-
ers, suggesting that current theory, which often argues for
one targeting strategy, is not sufficient for explaining elected
officials’ behavior and perceptions on this front.
With regard to turnout, I find that local policymakers over-
whelmingly believe that targeting citizens who have a high
propensity to vote over those with a low chance of doing so is
the vote-maximizing strategy. In addition, policymakers are
uncertain as to whether the distributive spending will boost
turnout in the targeted neighborhood. As such, they would
rather target certain voters than risk wasting distributive
goods on an attempt to mobilize those with a lower propen-
sity to turnout. Although officials favor targeting swing over
core and high turnout over low turnout, the interaction of vot-
ers’ turnout and support has some effect on policymakers’
targeting strategy. All else equal, officials are slightly more
likely to target a neighborhood if it consists of high turnout
swing voters or low turnout core voters. In a second study
where the turnout between citizens is not as drastic, I find that
officials favor the higher turnout residents when choosing
between swing voters but favor the lower turnout residents
when choosing between core supporters. Thus, the size of the
difference in turnout affects the extent to which officials con-
sider the interaction of constituents’ support and turnout.
This article makes several contributions to the distributive
politics literature. The first is its use of a novel data set and
research design to help adjudicate between competing theo-
ries on an important question in distributive politics. The
responses are from actual elected officials who make distribu-
tive choices in the real world and whose motivations are in
line with relevant theory. Second, the analysis not only mea-
sures whom politicians would target but also examines why
they would target one type of citizen over another. I primarily
focus on respondents’ choice between core and swing voters
and fail to find evidence supporting the assumptions underly-
ing Cox and McCubbins’ (1986) core voter model. This sug-
gests that conditional theories (e.g., Fleck, 1999; Hirano
et al., 2009) might provide a better explanation of why some
policymakers believe targeting core voters is more electorally
advantageous. Third, the finding that high turnout voters are
rewarded for their participation (see also Martin, 2003) has
potentially negative implications for representation at the
local level, given the skew in who participates in local elec-
tions (Anzia, 2013; although see Oliver et al., 2012).
Whom Should Policymakers Target
and Why?
In this section, I lay out the main predictions of the theories
between which this article helps adjudicate. I begin with the
swing voter models. In these models (e.g., Dixit & Londregan,
19961; Lindbeck & Weibull, 1987; but see Stokes, 2005 for a
slight alternative), citizens’ support or ideology is conceptual-
ized as their affinity for two opposing candidates in an open-seat
race independent of any distributive promises made by either
candidate. Candidates are assumed to have no chance of win-
ning over their opponents’ supporters, so they have to decide
whether to target a group of their core voters (i.e., citizens who
ideologically favor the candidate over the other one) or a group
of swing voters (i.e., citizens who are ideologically indifferent
between the two candidates). The prediction that politicians will
target swing over core stems from the argument that core voters
“cannot credibly threaten to punish their favored party if it with-
holds rewards,” but swing voters can. Thus, politicians “should
not waste rewards on” their core supporters (Stokes, 2005,
p. 317). These models make the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Target Swing Voters: All else equal,
policymakers prefer to allocate distributive benefits to
swing voters over core voters.
Hypothesis 1.1 (H1.1): Loyal Core Voters: Policymakers
believe that core voters will punish them less than swing
voters for targeting benefits to other voters.
Others (Cox et al., 1984; Cox & McCubbins, 1986) argue
that policymakers actually have a stronger incentive to target
core voters over swing voters, given the following two
assumptions: (a) politicians are risk averse and (b) citizens’
support for the candidate correlates with the politicians’ famil-
iarity with those citizens. In this framework, core voters are
“well-known quantities” to the candidate and have consis-
tently supported her in the past (Cox & McCubbins, 1986, p.
378). She knows how they will react to the allocation of dis-
tributive goods. Swing voters, on the other hand, are less
familiar or “unattached” to either candidate. They make for
“riskier investments” both because the politician is uncertain
how distributive benefits will affect swing voters’ electoral
behavior and because swing voters may be targeted by the
other candidate. As such, risk-averse politicians will “over-
invest” in core voters. This leads to the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 2 (H2): Target Core Voters: All else equal,
policymakers prefer to allocate distributive benefits to
core voters over swing voters.

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