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Promise Keepers

Evan Ringquist was determined to find out once and for all: Are politicians liars?

Bernard Baruch said, “Vote for the man who promises least; he’ll be the least disappointing.” It’s no surprise that politicians are widely considered pants-on-fire liars. What was surprising, at least to Evan Ringquist, was the lack of data to support or refute that commonly held assumption.

Ringquist set out to find answers, correlating ten years’ worth of Congressional campaign pledges with voting records in six critical policy areas: crime and gun control, morality (abortion and illegal drugs), health care, foreign affairs and trade, employment and affirmative action, and poverty and welfare. He embarked on this journey with the help of the 27 SPEA undergraduates who had signed up for his class, “Promises and Performance in the U.S. Congress.”

In Search of Promises

Ringquist immediately confronted his first daunting hurdle: actually finding the campaign promises. “We obviously couldn’t listen to all the speeches that all the candidates made over ten years. Then we thought about using candidates’ Web sites, but it turns out that Web sites contain very little specific information about candidates’ intentions. You hardly ever find information on things like free trade or environmental policy.”

Just as he was beginning to question the feasibility of his endeavor, Ringquist discovered Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit organization responsible for a pre-election survey called the National Public Awareness Test (NPAT).

“It’s a terrific resource,“ says Ringquist. “Their sole purpose is to provide objective information to citizens about their government.” Project Vote Smart covers candidates and elected officials in five categories: biographical information, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances, and interest group ratings.

Ringquist gathered a decade’s worth of NPAT answers, from 1992-2002, amounting to tens of thousands of pages of data, and used these responses as a measure of campaign pledges.

The professor and his students then searched every bill in every Congress, zeroing in on those bills that matched NPAT questions. “Once we coded all the votes on all these dozens of bills, we were able to figure out exactly how often members kept their campaign promises.”

The Findings

So, do politicians make good on their word after all?

“The classic academic answer is: that depends,” says Ringquist. “One thing I found reassuring is that there’s basically no difference between Democrats and Republicans. Each group keeps its promises about 60 percent of the time. On the other hand, in at least one area, foreign policy, the percentage of promises kept is 50 percent, no better than a coin flip.”

findings Results vary substantially across policy areas. Health care promises, for instance, fare better than foreign policy pledges. “Health care is more salient to constituents than is foreign policy,” says Ringquist. “So the positive spin is that politicians are more likely to keep their promises on issues that matter most to voters. Also, foreign policy is generally seen as the area where the president has the most influence. Voting in favor of the president can be seen as an expression of presidential deference.”

No Preconceived Notions

Asked if he found his results surprising, Ringquist—a firm believer in the idea that true scientific research should answer a question, not support a preexisting conclusion—says he wasn’t surprised because he had no expectations going in. “I truly did not know what I was going to find.” He was, however, “disappointed that overall the percentage of promise-keeping wasn’t higher.”

Ringquist is looking forward to continuing and expanding on political promise-keeping, but he is concerned that his key resource—responses to Project Vote Smart’s NPAT survey—will have less to offer as fewer politicians participate in the survey. “Candidates are becoming very wary of providing this information because they’re afraid it will be misinterpreted or taken out of context and used against them. So now leaders of both parties are advising their candidates not to answer the survey. I just hope it doesn’t get to the point that we can’t do this research because the data aren’t there.”

Ringquist hopes the data are available for years to come. “I initially went into this project thinking I’d answer one small question about whether politicians keep their promises on environmental policy. Now this work is one of the centerpieces of my research agenda. I’m sure it will lead me places that I can’t even foresee right now.”

Evan Ringquist, professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, began his academic training at Moorhead State University, receiving degrees in political science, economics, and biology, and continued this training at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he received an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science and M.S. in environmental studies.