Mexico’s Corrupt Mayors: Who Gets Punished at the Ballot Box, and Why

In a democracy, when and why are some politicians electorally punished for corrupt acts, while others get off scot-free? Some answers are commonsense: major scandals generally draw more ire than minor malfeasance; media coverage (and hence voter knowledge) matters; and citizens consider a variety of performance indicators—not just corruption or lack thereof—in selecting politicians. But the details are hazy. Some studies suggest politicians who get caught are more likely face electoral loss, but others find little to no such correlation. Likewise, we know anticorruption candidates often flounder for political reasons, but sometimes they succeed against the odds. So what drives, or contributes to, voter backlash against corrupt politicians?

A recent paper by Harvard scholars Horacio Larreguy, John Marshall, and James Snyder addresses this question in the context of mayoral elections in Mexico. Its conclusions should give pause to anticorruption activists looking for broad-brush solutions. In brief, the paper finds that the devil is in the details: local media coverage can reduce a corrupt incumbent’s vote share, but regional or national media doesn’t seem to matter much; voters do punish corrupt politicians on average, but certain political parties are punished much more than others for the same misconduct; and guaranteeing an audit of public programs reduces malfeasance, but merely threatening a possible audit has little if any effect.

These nuanced findings provide insight into voters’ habits, but they also reinforce the notion that corruption is deeply political—and therefore anticorruption interventions must be context-specific. To unpack this all a bit more, consider the study’s main findings:

  • First, the authors found a statistically significant drop in voter support for mayors whose corrupt acts were reported by local media, particularly local radio and television stations. But regional and national media outlets did not have the same effect. (The authors note that their study was designed to err on the side of not finding significant effects, so it is possible that the regional or national stations had some impact. Nevertheless, the difference is striking.) Why is local media more effective? The data do not clearly answer that question. Local stations might be more in tune with voters concerns, and thus they might report more salient facts. Citizens might have greater access to local TV and radio stations, or may simply pay greater attention to local rather than national reporting. Regardless of the root cause, the discrepancy in effect suggests that the medium for transparency matters as much as the message.
  • Second, the study also found a difference in electoral treatment between mayors from Mexico’s two largest national political parties, PRI and PAN. PRI falls to the political left of PAN, and the authors note it has “a stronger ‘pro-poor’ reputation” than PAN. After finding that PRI mayors were punished more severely for diverting funds from the poor than their PAN counterparts, the authors posited that this could be a “hypocrisy” effect—voters penalizing politicians for failing to live up to their promises. If so, that’s good news for anticorruption activists because it means that anticorruption rhetoric creates expectations of transparency that will influence citizens’ voting decisions. Get politicians to talk the talk, and voters will insist they walk the walk. But the trend could also reflect differing voter preferences. Voters more concerned with concrete performance than transparent process, for example, might broadly gravitate toward PAN, while the latter generally prefer PRI. And in any case, this finding reinforces the point above—political dynamics (here, differences between political parties) are a critical influence on how voters perceive corruption and what they are willing to tolerate. These dynamics probably also vary by region and constituency within a pluralistic democracy, meaning that a targeted transparency campaign could succeed in one district only to flop in the next.
  • Third, only actual, reported audits, which the mayors knew would occur, stemmed bad behavior. In other words, threatening audits, or randomizing audits across regions, did not appear to dissuade officials from acting corruptly. This is, at first blush, very depressing. Mexico’s mayors either do not take the threat of auditing seriously or don’t believe they’ll be criminally convicted if they get caught. Changing the political dynamic—say, through a series of high-profile prosecutions and convictions—could help ratchet up the stakes of corruption and create a stronger incentive against malfeasance.

Overall, the paper reinforces the insight that voters tolerance for corruption is driven largely by political factors–including perception of likely punishment, party affiliation and messaging. Because local context is critical, these results suggest that caution is in order when prescribing broad-brush anticorruption interventions.

9 thoughts on “Mexico’s Corrupt Mayors: Who Gets Punished at the Ballot Box, and Why

  1. I wonder about an additional variable: alternatives. Surely whether corruption is punished by the voters depends on whether they believe the replacement candidate to be equally corrupt. I wonder if the difference between PRI and PAN corruption could shed some light on this as well. I don’t know enough about Mexican politics to do more than throw out a guess, but if PRI is generally perceived to be more corrupt, then voters could feel more comfortable fleeing to PAN when a corruption scandal emerged. When a PAN mayor was caught, they might not feel that they would be in a better position by bringing in the also potentially corrupt PRI. In a way this would be the opposite of a hypocrisy finding; the ‘clean’ party would be less likely to be punished if some of their mayor faltered.

    • You’re right about this, at least as a general matter (though I can’t say I’ve seen evidence about Mexico specifically). One reason that allegations of corruption sometimes fail to decrease support for a particular candidate is that voters tend to view all parties/politicians as corrupt.

      Another related but distinct problem is that voters may find one party much more congenial on other dimensions (say, ideology, or ethnic/linguistic/regional affiliation), and as a result less likely to switch their vote on the basis of corruption, even if the voters very much dislike corruption.

      If you put those two points together, then as a crude first-pass hypothesis, we might expect that corruption allegations against an incumbent are most likely to cause that incumbent to lose when there is an opposition party that is perceived as cleaner but relatively similar on ideological or affinity dimensions, and such allegations are least likely to matter when the most plausible opposition candidates are perceived as dirty and quite distant from the incumbent on ideology/affinity. The more ambiguous cases are those in which there’s an ideologically similar opposition candidate who is perceived as also (possibly) corrupt, and those in which there’s a cleaner alternative, but one that is less desirable on other dimensions.

      • This is a really interesting point Matthew. I wonder if this theory suggests that, to the extent that we can extrapolate these findings to different contexts, it will make a significant difference whether or not the country has a multi-party or dual party system.

        Like Anusha, I also find the “hypocrisy effect” to be a particularly interesting aspect of Larreguy, Marshall & Snyder’s paper. My understanding is that these authors frame this hypocrisy as instances in which a political official has been found to be out of step with his or her party’s anti-corruption position. I wonder, however, about the extent to which this effect is magnified or diminished when a politician has personally explicitly adopted an anticorruption stance and/or deliberately undertaken anticorruption projects and then is found to nonetheless have engaged in corruption. To phrase this point slightly differently – do we think that the ‘hypocrisy effect’ derives from the fact that a politician who is engaging in corrupt practices is not a ‘true’ representative of a political party that has taken a strong stance against anticorruption or is it the hypocrisy inherent in a politician pursuing anticorruption initiatives while still engaging in corrupt acts that turns voters against them? I realize that there may be many instances in which these two views are indistinguishable (for example, if corruption is a large part of a political campaign) but if there is a genuine difference between how voters react to these situations doesn’t that potentially suggest two different prescriptions for anticorruption advocates? If we believe that voters are likely to turn against a politician because he is not a true representative of his political party’s anticorruption message then the prescription may be to encourage political parties to include anticorruption as part of their political platforms. However, if the ‘hypocrisy effect’ derives from a politician’s ‘hypocrisy’ more traditionally defined, namely advocating for/pursuing anticorruption initiatives while engaging in corrupt practices, then presumably the solution is not simply to have political parties generally to adopt anticorruption policies but to encourage individual politicians to undertake these projects. Obviously either of these solutions would be beneficial to combating corruption overall, but I’d be fascinated to see which would be more likely to trigger the ‘hypocrisy effect’ when politicians engage in corrupt acts (or if, as is also possible, there is not a clear distinction between these different scenarios).

        • Interesting question, Lauren. It has me wondering if you could possibly test it by analyzing votes for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Mexican Congress. The Chamber of Deputies is constituted by a mixed member proportional voting system, in which voters cast one vote for a candidate and one for a party. Analyzing aggregate election results might tell you something but, ideally (and, I’m assuming, impossibly), you would be able to examine ballots to discern whether voters split the ticket between candidates and parties, or refrained from voting for a candidate while still voting for his/her party, etc. If you could control other variables, such data might indicate whether voters are “punishing” the candidate or the party. If the former, it doesn’t bode that well for systemic reform. If the latter, the electoral process might exert pressure on parties to do more than merely adopt anti-corruption rhetoric.

          • I think you’re absolutely right about this, Liz. I’d love to see additional research on this point because I think the implications of either outcome (punishing the party v. punishing the individual) could potentially have an important effect on how both politicians and parties think about framing their anticorruption platforms/views on corruption during political elections. As you allude to, however, if it appears that the “hypocrisy effect” primarily impacts individuals, rather than parties, this may have troubling implications for politicians’ willingness to adopt strong anticorruption stances (and in fact may even serve as a deterrent).

  2. I’m really intrigued by the “hypocrisy” effect idea that you mention and I wonder if that is what we’ll see in Delhi if the anticorruption party that was recently elected there fails to deliver on its promises. The party is extremely pro-poor and there are gargantuan expectations riding on the win. This “hypocrisy” theory makes me wonder if, in the case that the AAP runs into corruption problems or fails on its promises, voters will vote for a different party even if it is openly more corrupt or has worse policies. If that’s the case, then allegations of corruption in anticorruption parties or movements could be a massive blow and cause voters to vote for a party that is even more corrupt just because voters are upset about the hypocrisy of a corrupt anticorruption party or candidate. This essentially can cause a net loss to society because voters are actually be better off sticking with the less-corrupt anticorruption candidate. If it worse for a “good” party to fail than for a “bad” party to fail in the eyes of voters, doesn’t this create bad incentives both for candidates and voters? Has this played out in Mexico with the PRI and PAN?

  3. To preface this comment, I haven’t read this paper, just skipped to the relevant section, and have never studied psychology, so take everything I’m about to say with several salt shakers full of salt…

    Like Lauren and Anusha, I found the hypocrisy effect theory intriguing, but because it was the opposite of what I would have expected. I’m now forgetting the name of it, but there’s been a lot of sociological/psychological research done on an effect whereby if we’re given information that doesn’t fit with what we expect or believe, we are likely to reject it (assume it can’t be true, the source is biased, downplay its significance, etc.), whereas we’re more likely to believe information that fits with our preexisting beliefs and assumptions–when we get that information, it just intensifies those beliefs. In other words, if it’s true that the corrupt acts of the PRI were out of line with the public’s beliefs and expectations about how the PRI would act, that vaguely remembered line of research would have led me to expect that people would be LESS likely to punish the PRI than they would have if the public had neutral opinions about the PRI’s likelihood of being corrupt.

    However, from a quick glance at the paper, it seems as if the public actually thinks of the PRI as corrupt–although in reality “PRI mayors engage in the least municipal malfeasance,” “the PRI [has an] association with electoral fraud” in the public’s mind (p. 26). If that’s true, then it it doesn’t seem like hypocrisy is necessarily the cause. It could just be a case of people hearing about reported PRI corruption, thinking “yes, I can believe that,” and then consequently punishing the party–in other words, it fits with the aforementioned psychological explanation (I know it’s a commonly discussed thing, so please forgive me for forgetting its name!).

    All this said, I think Sarah and Matthew (and Julissa) are right to highlight the many ways other things factor in before corruption in a voter’s mind, so drawing any conclusions about what’s really happening is difficult. Still, I’m not yet convinced that hypocrisy is necessarily what’s at play here–it seems at least as plausible that something near the opposite is true.

    • (I should note that there is obviously a distinction between fiscal malfeasance [the paper’s focus] and electoral fraud. It would just have been nice to see evidence that voters really do think the PRI is less corrupt with regards to money. Once again, since I have not read the full paper, that evidence may be there, and if I knew more about Mexican politics, I’d be better able to assess the paper’s seemingly implied claim that the PRI is not expected to be fiscally corrupt–and if it’s not implying that claim or if that claim is wrong, that makes me even more skeptical of the hypocrisy thesis.)

    • Cognitive dissonance. I can’t believe I couldn’t remember that (so I’m going to remember that I could).

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