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: Continue reading