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Political Activists as Free-Riders: Evidence from a Natural Field Experiment

Lukas Hensel

Johannes Hermle

Anselm Rink

Christopher Roth 

Abstract: How do the decisions of citizens to engage in political activism depend on their beliefs about the engagement of others? We examine this question through a natural field experiment with a major European party during a recent highstake election. In a seemingly unrelated party survey, we randomly assigned canvassers to true information about the canvassing intentions of their peers. Using survey evidence and unobtrusive, behavioral data from the party’s canvassing app, we find that treated canvassers reduce their own canvassing significantly when learning that their peers engage in more canvassing than previously thought. Treatment effects are particularly large i) along the intensive margin; ii) in the final days of the campaign; iii) and for people less driven by social image concerns. The evidence implies that effort choices of political activists exhibit strategic substitutability, not complementarity

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