Romer and Rosenthal, JPE 1979

“The Elusive Median Voter”

Romer and Rosenthal’s main point is that empirical evidence of the median voter theorem is not as solid as people think (or thought, in 1979). Existing studies (like that of Bergstrom and Goodman 1973) had demonstrated that expenditures across political units were correlated with characteristics of the median voter, particularly his income and tax price. But this would be the finding even under plausible alternatives to the median voter theorem.

Their critique centers on two problems they see in existing literature on the median voter theorem:

  • the multiple fallacy: It is not clear from existing studies whether the median voter gets what he wants or some multiple of what he wants.
  • the fractile fallacy: It is not clear if the median is the pivotal voter or a voter at some other place in the distribution is the median voter.

Romer and Rosenthal present one alternative to the median voter model that demonstrates how it could be the case that the median is decisive but gets a multiple of what he wants. In a bureaucratic threat model, the bureaucracy is able to force the electorate to choose between a status quo and an alternative. The bureaucracy may be able to maintain the status quo by presenting an alternative that is sufficiently unsatisfying to the median voter. A more straightforward example could be that there are competing parties that do not converge on the median voter for some reason (the literature has provided a number of them, such as directional voting or the need to be generate turnout by providing distinct alternatives), such that the median is pivotal but he again effectively chooses between two somewhat dissatisfying alternatives.
These are useful criticisms. Of note are the mentions in the paper to survey-based research that does a better job than Bergstrom and Goodman at estimating individual demand functions for public goods. Still missing it seems are natural experiment-based approaches to estimating the responsiveness of policy to the median voter, such as Lott and Kenny’s work on the effect of female suffrage on social spending.