Race, politics, and punishment


This paper empirically evaluates two competing theories of electoral accountability in the context of New Orleans’ 2006 mayoral election. According to the democratic efficiency theory, voters can successfully punish ineffective political agents by removing them from office. In contrast, the public choice theory argues that the bundled nature of political goods prevents voters from successfully holding ineffective politicians accountable. We find that although there is limited support for the punishment effect predicted by the democratic efficiency theory, this effect is overwhelmed by the fact that the bundle of goods politicians offer contains elements that pull in opposing directions. This prevents the punishment effect from having any real impact, leading to democratic failure. Our results support the public choice theory of electoral (un)accountability.

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  1. 1.

    The political bundling problem remains regardless of candidates’ absolute levels of competence. For example, even if all candidates in a given New Orleans mayoral election are largely incompetent, as long as they aren’t identically so, citizens still face a tradeoff between a candidate’s relative competence and the other elements of the political bundle he offers.

  2. 2.

    To our knowledge this paper is the second to use a hurricane-caused disaster in New Orleans to evaluate the determinants of its mayoral election. The first is Abney and Hill (1966), who consider natural disaster in New Orleans as a political variable.

  3. 3.

    For an analysis of the political problems associated with FEMA-provided disaster relief, see also Garrett and Sobel (2003) and Leeson and Sobel (2008).

  4. 4.

    Nor can Nagin be blamed for the failure to devote the resources required to make the levies that failed in the face of Hurricane Katrina strong enough to withstand a Category 5 hurricane when those levies were being built and later attended to. That fault lies largely at the feet of American taxpayers.

  5. 5.

    One key purpose of representative democracy is to give citizens a means of expressing their evaluations of politicians’ performance. Our purpose in this paper is to test whether democracy does in fact faithfully reflect the various elements of citizens’ evaluations of that performance (per the democratic efficiency hypothesis) or whether it might fail to do so because of political “bundling” (per the public choice hypothesis).

  6. 6.

    We exclude the remaining eight precincts because of missing data. These are in Ward 9, precincts 41A, 41B, 41C, 41D, 42C, 44G, 44O, 45A.

  7. 7.

    We exclude absentee ballots not assigned to a precinct.

  8. 8.

    The only other major candidate facing Nagin and Landrieu in the general election was Audubon Nature Institute CEO Ron Forman who garnered 17% of the vote.

  9. 9.

    Our simulation of column 4 evaluates change in percent black at its mean, −1.94.

  10. 10.

    The average employed in our regressions is based on a sample of three observations within each precinct. The standard deviation and range was calculated from these three observations.


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We thank Michael Munger and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Andrea Dean, Andrew Kashdan, and Jennifer Dirmeyer provided excellent research assistance. The financial support of the Mercatus Center is also gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Peter T. Leeson.

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Leeson, P.T., Sobel, R.S. Race, politics, and punishment. Eur J Law Econ 31, 265–285 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10657-011-9228-9

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  • Democratic failure
  • Hurricane Katrina
  • New Orleans

JEL Classification

  • K00
  • D71
  • D72