DEBATES: Voter and Political Response to Political Communication in Sierra Leone
75 Pages Posted: 12 Sep 2015
Date Written: August 24, 2015
Candidate debates have a rich history, offer a unique communication forum, and have become integral to contemporary campaign strategy. There is, however, no definitive evidence of whether they affect actual voting behavior. The relative scarcity of political information in the developing world offers an attractive testing ground, where the effects of debates could be larger and more directly linked to electoral outcomes. We experimentally manipulate citizen exposure to debates in Sierra Leone to measure their impacts on, and the interconnections among, voter behavior, campaign spending, and the performance of elected politicians. We find positive impacts on citizen political knowledge, policy alignment, openness to candidates, and votes cast on Election Day. We then document an endogenous response by participating candidates, who increased campaign expenditure in communities where debate videos were screened in large public gatherings. Over the longer term, we find that debate participation enhanced the subsequent accountability of elected Parliamentarians, who demonstrated greater constituency engagement and development expenditure over their first year in office. To explore mechanisms, individual treatments disentangle the effects of general political knowledge from the information conveyed about candidate persona, and find that both matter. The results speak to the central political economy question of whether elections effectively discipline politicians, and show how political communication – via interparty debates – can trigger a chain of events that ultimately influences policy.
JEL Classification: D72, D83, O17
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation