Who Receives Electoral Gifts? It Depends on Question Wording: Experimental Evidence from Mexico


This research shows that prior studies have been based on a survey methodology that systematically underestimates vote buying. Survey questions that rely on filter questions and include the phrase “in exchange for your vote” make respondents less likely to self-report receiving gifts during political campaigns. In turn, direct questioning that help respondents remember whether they received an electoral gift makes them more likely to report it. The findings of this paper suggest that prior vote-buying surveys have underestimated the amount of clientelism by political parties in Latin America. When following our proposed question wording, our research finds that the clientelistic linkages between parties and voters are stronger than previously considered.

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  1. 1.

    In the 1990–2015 period, the Mexican system, along with Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, and Chile registered almost perfect stability of the main contenders in Latin American presidential elections. When additional indicators are added (interparty electoral competition and stability of parties’ ideological positions), Uruguay, Mexico, and Chile constituted the most stable systems in Latin America (Mainwaring 2017).

  2. 2.

    Survey research studies also suggest that filtering triggers a “survey burden” (Eckman et al. 2014). In other words, filtering increases respondents’ tendency to choose the response that does not prompt a follow-up question in order to shorten the interview.

  3. 3.

    In the results section of this paper, we test if (1) in an attempt to mitigate social desirability effects, some respondents might simply cover up “vote buying” practices by their party by mentioning opposition parties and (2) by being asked the “vote-buying” question multiple times some respondents might be forced to say “yes.”.

  4. 4.

    For example, Kiewiet de Jonge’s (2015) analysis separates campaign giveaways, such as buttons, pins, calendars, hats, and t-shirts in Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Argentina.

  5. 5.

    The 2012 National Electoral Study was conducted on July 13–19. The original survey was conducted on July 11–15. The same polling firm conducted both surveys.

  6. 6.

    In conversations with colleagues, we know for certain that many list experiments are not published when they provide unexpected results; therefore, we report the results for transparency and to highlight that sometimes list experiments do not seem to work in the expected way (consistent with recent literature: Holbrook and Krosnick 2010 and Coutts and Jann 2011).

  7. 7.

    These results are also consistent with recent studies that rely on sensitive survey techniques such as randomized response (RR). Bockenholt and van der Heijden (2007) find that the complexity of the method (and the cognitive taxing process required) can make randomized response (RR) difficult to use with populations with lower levels of education. Consistent with Bockenholt and van der Heijden (2007), we find that the list experiment in Mexico tends to underestimate engagement in this sensitive behavior among lower educated respondents (see Fig. 1 in the Appendix).

  8. 8.

    Kiewiet de Jonge (2015) finds that such differences are an outcome of variations in social desirability bias. These variations can be attributed to awareness of social norms about the acceptability of vote buying, sensitivity to interviewer perceptions of socioeconomic status, and variation in the types of goods distributed in different countries.

  9. 9.

    Ideally, the experiment would have included a fourth condition, which would have had both the phrase “in exchange for” and the filter question. However, given the N of the survey, the study was too small to accommodate that condition. Given the findings, it is highly likely that such phrasing would have reported the least percentage of voters receiving electoral gifts.

  10. 10.

    During the campaign, the PRI distributed cards (“tarjetas rosas” or “pink cards”) which promised housewives a government sponsored stipend. The stipend was conditional on whether if the recipient of such a card voted for the PRI candidate. According to several news outlets, activists distributed those cards in exchange for voters’ personal information.

  11. 11.

    PAN (N = 13): Treatment 1: 1% (N = 4); Treatment 2: 2% (N = 6); Treatment 3: 1% (N = 3).

  12. 12.

    PRD (N = 25): Treatment 1: 5% (N = 16); Treatment 2: 1% (N = 2); Treatment 3: 2% (N = 7).

  13. 13.

    MORENA (N = 6): Treatment 1: 2% (N = 6); Treatment 2: 0% (N = 0); Treatment 3: 0% (N = 0).


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For comments and feedback, the authors thank Daniel Gingerich, Peter Johannessen, Jeff Harden, and members of the Kellogg Institute’s Comparative Politics Workshop and University of Virginia’s Quantitative Collaborative. The data and code can be found in the following location: https://www.rodrigocastrocornejo.com/publications.html.

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Correspondence to Rodrigo Castro Cornejo.

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See Fig. 1 and Tables 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16.

Fig. 1

Electoral gifts across levels of education (Mexico 2015, CSES). Direct question: dependent variable = receive at least one gift from any political party

Table 7 Question wordings
Table 8 Direct questions and list experiments results in recent studies (Kiewiet de Jonge 2015)
Table 9 Balance across groups
Table 10 Question wording effect (State of Mexico)
Table 11 Open-ended question: “what did you receive?”
Table 12 Number of gifts received during the campaign (direct question)
Table 13 Number of gifts received during the campaign (direct question)
Table 14 Type of gifts distributed by parties (Mexico 2017: State of Mexico)
Table 15 Question wording effect (State of Mexico)
Table 16 Among voters who receive electoral gifts from the PRI (Mexico 2017: State of Mexico)

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Castro Cornejo, R., Beltrán, U. Who Receives Electoral Gifts? It Depends on Question Wording: Experimental Evidence from Mexico. Polit Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09618-1

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  • Survey research
  • Public opinion
  • Survey experiments
  • Vote buying
  • Latin America
  • Clientelism