Follow the Leader: Theory and Evidence on Political Participation

Posted: 25 Jun 1997

See all articles by Barry J. Nalebuff

Barry J. Nalebuff

Yale University - Yale School of Management; Yale University - Cowles Foundation

Ron Shachar

Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliyah - Adelson School of Entrepreneuship

Date Written: February 19, 1997


This paper presents an empirical and theoretical investigation of the strategic components to political participation. Using state-by-state voting data for the eleven U.S. Presidential elections, 1948-1988, we first show that voter turnout is a positive function of predicted closeness and a negative function of the voting population size. We then develop a follow-the-leader model of political participation to explain and to impose structure on these empirical regularities. In the model, leaders expend effort according to their chance of being pivotal, which depends on the expected closeness of the race (at both the state and national levels), its unpredictability, the number of eligible voters, and the rationally anticipated turnout in response to effort by leaders. Returning to the data with structural estimation shows that closeness counts: a one percent increase in the predicted closeness at the state level increases turnout by 0.34 percent. Through simulations, we calculate the chance that each state is pivotal in the national elections. This national closeness effect is significant in explaining effort and participation. Winning the national election is worth thirteen times the value of winning the state. However, since the average chance of a state being pivotal is small, in 96 percent of the observations the value of winning the state had a larger net impact on motivating effort. As a test of the model, we compare our effort variable with National Election Studies data on the proportion of individuals contacted by campaign representatives. Although our effort variable is inferred from the equilibrium model and thus is estimated without using direct data on campaign effort levels, it is significantly correlated with party contact.

JEL Classification: D72

Suggested Citation

Nalebuff, Barry and Shachar, Roni, Follow the Leader: Theory and Evidence on Political Participation (February 19, 1997). Available at SSRN:

Barry Nalebuff (Contact Author)

Yale University - Yale School of Management ( email )

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Yale University - Cowles Foundation ( email )

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Roni Shachar

Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliyah - Adelson School of Entrepreneuship ( email )

P.O. Box 167
Herzliya, 46150

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