A long research tradition in behavioral political science evaluates the performance of democracy by examining voter competence. This literature got its start arguing that voters' lack of information undermines a defense of democracy rooted in electoral accountability. A more recent literature deepens the debate, with some authors claiming that voters effectively use cues to substitute for information about candidates and policies, and other authors claiming that voters are insufficiently rational to do so. We argue that, regardless of its conclusions about voter competence, this literature's single-minded focus on voter behavior is misguided. We use a sequence of formal models to show that traditional intuitions are incomplete because they ignore the effect that changes in voter behavior have on the equilibrium behavior of politicians. When this strategic interaction is taken into account, increases in voter information or voter rationality sometimes make democratic performance better and sometimes make democratic performance worse. One simply cannot assess the implications of voter characteristics for democratic performance without also studying how those characteristics affect the behavior of politicians.
This study, based on the two-wave questionnaire data collected from legislative candidates in Iowa, attempts to test the "congratulation-rationalization effect," a highly provocative hypothesis that John Kingdon formulated regarding politicians' beliefs about voters. The hypothesis asserts that winning candidates tend to develop complimentary beliefs about voters while losing candidates tend to develop beliefs deprecating to voters. The results of analysis indicate, however, no significant difference between winners and losers in terms of the direction and magnitude of changes in their beliefs about voters, suggesting that the hypothesis is invalid. When the hypothesis is reformulated in terms of "dissonance states" rather than "election outcomes," the evidence is strongly supportive. Among winners, those who perceive a high degree of dissonance more than those who perceive little dissonance tend to change their beliefs about voters in a favorable direction. Conversely, among losers, those who perceive a high degree of dissonance more than those who perceive little dissonance tend to change their beliefs in an unfavorable direction. Therefore, the "congratulation-rationalization" hypothesis can be sustained only if cast in direct dissonance terms.