Does the name on the check help win votes?
By VIRGINIA OLIVEROS, REBECCA WEITZ-SHAPIRO AND MATTHEW S. WINTERS | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 30, 2020
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This April, instead of submitting tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service as usual, many Americans were waiting for the IRS to send them cash payments as part of a coronavirus relief package. On April 14, The Washington Post broke the news that the U.S. Treasury Department had made an “unprecedented” decision that stimulus checks sent via postal mail would carry the words “President Donald J. Trump” printed on the memo line — the first time in U.S. history a president’s name appeared on an IRS check.
House and Senate Democrats objected; some reporting suggested adding the president’s name might delay the checks.
Trump’s tactic of literally putting his name on a government benefit was familiar to many observers of lower- and middle-income democracies. Social scientists have studied the many ways in which politicians in these countries routinely try to personalize government programs, funds and benefits.
Politicians around the world regularly try to put their names on government benefits.
In the U.S., we are used to seeing mayors’ and governors’ names on welcome signs on highways and at airports, and on commemorative plaques in places like parks. Elsewhere, some politicians place their names directly on government benefits that run from the small to the substantial.
In Argentina in 2001, a governor distributed 800,000 pairs of children’s shoes with his name printed on the tongue; more recently, a mayor put her name on the city’s 40 new police cars. In India, political scientists Adam Auerbach and Tariq Thachil found city politicians tag local public goods with their names — like water tanks located at busy intersections — to claim credit for delivering them and thus win more votes. In Mexico, controversy erupted when a mayor in the state of Hidalgo tried to name a street in the town for himself. And in Bolivia earlier this year, a governor’s signature appeared on checks his state distributed through a small-business loan program.
Presumably, these politicians, including Trump, want to see their names on government benefits and services in part because they believe that will help them at the ballot box. Are they right?
Do they win votes by claiming credit for these policies?
While no one has directly studied the effects of politicians literally putting their names on government benefits, scholarship does find evidence that politicians win votes when they claim credit for policies — even if they’re not actually responsible for those projects. For example, political scientists Cesi Cruz and Christina Schneider show mayors in the Philippines try to link themselves to World Bank-funded infrastructure projects. These projects are distributed according to a formula.
Nevertheless, mayors of cities that receive such projects are more likely to be reelected than mayors of cities that just missed the cutoff for receiving these projects. Similarly, economists Raymond Guiteras and Mushfiq Mobarak find Bangladeshi politicians visit NGO-funded programs to try to claim credit for them. They also find citizens reward politicians for these programs — even when the projects were randomly assigned rather than obtained through the mayor’s initiative.
Personalizing policies can set off a voter backlash.
On the other hand, voters may punish politicians who personally label government benefits.
Consider studies of “clientelism” — a practice in which politicians or parties offer goods and favors in exchange for electoral support — in Argentina and Eastern Europe. Some citizens disapprove of such transactions and will vote against politicians who engage in them. Similarly, citizens may view efforts to personally name programs and policies as a signal that politicians are focused on improving their reelection chances, rather than governing effectively. That’s especially true for citizens who do not benefit directly from the policies.
While politicians might benefit from claiming credit they didn’t earn, accurate information can diminish their political gains. In the Bangladesh study described above, when researchers told constituents taking the survey that the NGO programs had actually been randomly assigned, the newly informed citizens stopped crediting local politicians. If Democrats are eager to claim credit for the stimulus package, they may wish to clarify that Congress passed the stimulus bill, which was paid for with taxpayers’ money.
So will having Trump’s name on the stimulus checks influence the election? Research from other countries suggests that will depend on whether voters react by giving Trump credit or by recoiling from his attempt to claim it. And that may depend on whether Trump or the Democrats are more successful in shaping the public narrative.
Virginia Oliveros is associate professor of political science at Tulane University and 2019-2020 visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame. Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro is associate professor of political science at Brown University and author of “Curbing Clientelism in Argentina: Politics, Poverty, and Social Policy.” Matthew S. Winters is associate professor and associate head for graduate programs in the department of political science at the University of Illinois.