Electoral Chairs’ Seminars – 13 April

Foraging for Policy: Ambiguity as a Heuristic

Sarah Lachance (University of British Columbia)

Notwithstanding democratic norms of transparency and accountability, electoral candidates often take ambiguous policy positions by making vague or contradictory statements. Yet, the dominant assumption in the literature on voter behaviour is that voters are risk-averse. This poses a puzzle: if voters are risk-averse, why do candidates create uncertainty by taking ambiguous policy positions? To answer this question, this study uses insights from ecological rationality and foraging theory, and an experimental design that simulates an electoral campaign. I argue that, as foragers, voters have to deal with an uncertain environment. They are satisficers who seek a “good-enough”—rather than optimal—decision. In this context, ambiguity is not necessarily penalized. The experiment was fielded in Canada, the United States and Germany using a mix of panel respondents and workers on crowdsourcing platforms. The results provide evidence that voters in the United States and Canada use the ambiguity of policy statements by major party candidates as a cue for non-centrist policy positions. Policy ambiguity attracts voters who sit between the center and the extremes, yet it does so without repelling centrist and extremist voters. Hence it explains why policy ambiguity is an attractive strategy for electoral candidates and offers a solution to the puzzle. Further analyses suggest that the null treatment effect in Germany could be due to bias related to the composition of the sample. 

Contact Semih Çakır if you would like to participate in the seminar.

This content has been updated on 9 April 2022 at 11 h 52 min.