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On public opinion polls and voters' turnout


Journal of Public Economic Theory

Published online on


This paper studies the effects that the revelation of information on the electorate's preferences has on voters' turnout. The experimental data show that closeness in the division of preferences induces a significant increase in turnout. Moreover, for closely divided electorates (and only for these electorates), the provision of information significantly raises the participation of subjects supporting the slightly larger team relative to the smaller team. We show that the heterogeneous effect of information on the participation of subjects in different teams is driven by the subjects' (incorrect) beliefs of casting a pivotal vote. Simply put, subjects overestimate the probability of casting a pivotal vote when they belong to the team with a slight majority, and choose the strategy that maximizes their utility based on their inflated probability assessment. Empirical evidence on gubernatorial elections in the United States between 1990 and 2005 is consistent with our main experimental result. Namely, we observe that the difference in the actual vote tally between the party leading according to the polls and the other party is larger than the one predicted by the polls only in closely divided electorates. We provide a behavioral model that explains the main findings of our experimental and empirical analyses.