The Corner

Hail to the Pork

There is an interesting paper called “Hail to the Pork?: The Influence of Federal Spending on Presidential Elections.” [The published version of the article in the American Political Science Review is here]. The study looks at whether or not voters reward presidents for increased federal spending in their local communities. Previous studies had mainly focused on congressional elections, and to the extent that they had looked at the presidency, the results were inconclusive. Considering the increase in spending through the stimulus bill in the last few years, it’s a better question to ask than ever (think of the different signs that have been placed throughout the country advertising the spending in local communities).

The authors, Douglas L. Kriner and Andrew Reeves, perform a county- and individual-level study of presidential elections from 1988 to 2008, and find “evidence that voters reward incumbent presidents (or their party’s nominee) for increased federal spending in their communities.” This phenomenon is heightened in battleground states.

Particularly interesting points from their paper:

  • “We argue that one of the most important reasons for the relative dearth of evidence of federal spending’s electoral consequence is that past scholarship has looked for it in the wrong place.”

  • “We argue that there are strong reasons to expect electorates to reward presidents for federal spending. However, the benefit that presidents secure from increased spending may differ across specific electoral contexts and among different types of voters.”

  • “In a county-level analysis of the last six presidential elections, we show that incumbent presidents or their party’s nominee receive increased electoral support in counties that enjoyed rising levels of federal spending.”

  • “We hypothesize and present evidence that presidents enjoy a greater boost from spending in counties represented by members of Congress from their party that is where partisan accountability for federal performance is most clear.”

  • “We also posit that the effect of spending is conditional on ideology. First, we show that this is true on a contextual level. Conservative counties reward presidents at substantially lower levels than moderate or liberal counties. We also show that this is true at the individual level. The more conservative a voter, the less likely he or she is to reward a president for federal spending.”

This is interesting, but also unfortunate, since studies have shown that increase in government spending tends to shrink the private sector (I have written about this here, here and here).

It is also unfortunate since what may seem to be free federal money for local communities in the short run often turns out to lead to much higher taxes in the long run. This paper by economists Russell Sobel and George Crowley, called “Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes?,” shows, among other things, that “for every $100 in grants, local governments eventually raise revenue by between $23 and $46 to support the continued operation of these programs.”

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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