Politicians have a nasty reputation for never keeping campaign promises, but most do actually put their money, or at least their efforts, where their mouth is, a new study finds. U.S. voters tend to have a cynical outlook on how politicians do their jobs. In 2004, the National Annenberg Election Study found that only one-third of voters surveyed thought their elected officials even tried to keep their campaign promises once elected. Other election studies have found a similar pessimism among voters in regards to politicians saying one thing but doing another. To see whether this cynicism is warranted, Tracy Sulkin, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, compared the policy issues raised in the TV campaign ads of U.S. congressmen and senators to their legislative records. The ads came from the 1998, 2000 and 2002 campaigns of 391 winning candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and 84 winning candidates for the U.S. Senate and covered more than three-quarters of congressional districts nationwide. Sulkin marked the ads by the policy-related issues the candidates raised (for example, education, defense, crime, but not honesty or experience) and then looked at the representatives' and senators' records to see if they introduced or sponsored legislation dealing with those issues. (Sulkin didn't look at voting records because reps and senators have little control over the final version of a bill, and because she thought that introducing and sponsoring legislation was a better measure of what elected officials actually cared about, she said.) Safety and specificity The analysis showed that if candidates talked about a particular issue in their ads, they were very likely to follow through and introduce or sponsor legislation on that issue. The association wasn't quite as strong for senators as it was for representatives, likely because senators deal with a broader range of issues, while representatives tend to focus on just four or five core issues, Sulkin told LiveScience. The study also found that a candidate would pursue a certain policy once elected whether or not they were vague or specific on their plans while campaigning. "Specificity, which we seem overly concerned about, isn't actually a signal that you care more about the issue," Sulkin said. The analysis, set to be detailed in a chapter in an upcoming edition of the book "Congress Reconsidered" (CQ Press, 2008), also found that attacks on an opponent on a given issue, however, did not mean that the attacking candidate really cared about that issue or would act on it. One surprising finding was that the "safer" a candidate was in their election (as in, polling far ahead of his or her opponent), the more likely he or she was to follow through on campaign promises. In fact, these candidates may be so safe because they are known for keeping promises. "People who keep their promises are rewarded for it," Sulkin said. These results likely hold for other elected officials, such as presidents and governors, Sulkin said. Sulkin hopes that studies like hers will help decrease the cynicism of the American voter, and "help people think more critically about the critiques they make," she said.
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Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.