, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 223-247

An experiment on coordination in multi-candidate elections: The importance of polls and election histories

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Do polls simply measure intended voter behavior or can they affect it and, thus, change election outcomes? Do candidate ballot positions or the results of previous elections affect voter behavior? We conduct several series of experimental, three-candidate elections and use the data to provide answers to these questions. In these elections, we pay subjects conditionally on election outcomes to create electorates with publicly known preferences. A majority (but less than two-thirds) of the voters are split in their preferences between two similar candidates, while a minority (but plurality) favor a third, dissimilar candidate. If all voters voted sincerely, the third candidate — a Condorcet loser — would win the elections. We find that pre-election polls significantly reduce the frequency with which the Condorcet loser wins. Further, the winning candidate is usually the majority candidate who is listed first on the poll and election ballots. The evidence also shows that a shared history enables majority voters to coordinate on one of their favored candidates in sequences of identical elections. With polls, majority-preferred candidates often alternate as election winners.

We thank the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University for funding this research. For many helpful comments and suggestions, we thank Maurice Salles, an anonymous referee, and many seminar participants. This paper was presented at the October 1991 ESA meetings as “Polls, Position and Coordination in Three-Way Elections.”