Selectorate theory

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The selectorate theory is detailed in The Logic of Political Survival, authored by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University (NYU), Alastair Smith of NYU, Randolph M. Siverson of UC Davis, and James D. Morrow of the University of Michigan.

In selectorate theory, three groups of people affect leaders. These groups are the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition. The nominal selectorate, also referred to as the interchangeables, includes every person who has some say in choosing the leader (for example, in an American presidential election, all registered voters). The real selectorate, also referred to as the influentials, are those who really choose the leaders (for example, in an American presidential election, those people who cast a vote). The winning coalition, also referred to as the essentials, are those whose support translates into victory (for example, in an American presidential election, those voters that give a candidate 270 electoral votes).[4]

The fundamental premise in selectorate theory is that the primary goal of a leader is to remain in power. To remain in power, leaders must maintain their winning coalition. When the winning coalition is small, as in autocracies, the leader will tend to use private goods to maintain the coalition. When the winning coalition is large, as in democracies, the leader will tend to use public goods to satisfy the coalition.

Distribution of goods[edit]

A public good is one that everyone enjoys non-exclusively such as national defense or clean water. A private good is a good that is enjoyed exclusively by a select few, usually within the winning coalition, and cannot be shared. An example of such a good would be anything exclusionary, such as cash or legal impunity.

It can be said, then, that everyone in the selectorate, including the winning coalition, reap the benefits of public goods while only those within the winning coalition enjoy private goods.

Government types, leaders, and challenger threats[edit]

According to the selectorate theory, a leader has the greatest chance of political survival when the selectorate is large and the winning coalition is small, which occurs in an autocracy. This is because those who are in a winning coalition can easily be replaced by other members of the selectorate who are not in the winning coalition. Thus, the costs of defection for those members of the winning coalition can be potentially large, namely the loss of all private goods. Similarly, the chances of a challenger in replacing the leader are similarly smallest in such an autocratic system since those in the winning coalition would be hard pressed to defect. The ratio of private to public goods as payoff to the winning coalition is the highest in such a system.

A monarchy, where the selectorate is small and the winning coalition is even smaller, provides a challenger with a greater opportunity to overthrow the current leader. This is because the proportion of selectorate members who are also in the winning coalition is relatively large. That is, if a new leader comes to power, chances are a given member of the winning coalition will remain within the coalition. The incentive for defection to attain a greater amount of goods offered by a challenger is not, in this case, outweighed by the risk of not being included in the new winning coalition. Here, the proportion of private goods in relation to public goods is seen declining.

A scenario in which both the winning coalition is large and the selectorate is even larger provides the least amount of stability to a leader’s occupancy of power; such a system is a democracy. Here, the proportion of public goods outweighs private goods simply because of the sheer size of the winning coalition; it would be far too costly to provide private goods to every individual member of the winning coalition when the benefits of public goods would be enjoyed by all. Because of this fact—that the leader cannot convince winning coalition members to remain loyal through private good incentives, which are in turn cost-restrictive—the challenger poses the greatest threat to the incumbent. This degree of loyalty to the incumbent leader, whatever the government structure may be, is called the loyalty norm.

A scenario where the winning coalition is large and the selectorate is small is logically impossible since the winning coalition is a subset of the selectorate.


Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce; Alastair Smith; Randolph M. Siverson; James D. Morrow (2003). The Logic of Political Survival. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-63315-9.