Backward Induction in the Wild? Evidence from Sequential Voting in the U.S. Senate

104 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2014

Date Written: March 2017


In the U.S. Senate, roll calls are held in alphabetical order. We document that senators early in the order are less likely to vote with the majority of their own party than those whose last name places them at the end of the alphabet. To speak to the mechanism behind this result, we develop a simple model of sequential voting, in which forward-looking senators rely on backward induction in order to free ride on their colleagues. Estimating our model structurally, we find that this form of strategic behavior is an important part of equilibrium play. At the same time, there appears to be a great amount of heterogeneity in senators' use of backward reasoning. We also consider, but ultimately dismiss, alternative explanations related to learning about common values and vote buying.

Keywords: backward induction, partisanship, position taking, voting, U.S. Senate

JEL Classification: D0, D01, D03, D76

Suggested Citation

Spenkuch, Jörg L. and Montagnes, Pablo and Magleby, Daniel, Backward Induction in the Wild? Evidence from Sequential Voting in the U.S. Senate (March 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Jörg L. Spenkuch (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Department of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences (MEDS) ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States


Pablo Montagnes

University of Chicago - Harris Public Policy ( email )

1155 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Daniel Magleby

Binghamton University ( email )

PO Box 6001
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000
United States

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