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Election promise

An election promise is a promise or guarantee made to the public by a politician or other elected official who is trying to win an election. Election promises are usually made long before an election day and are instrumental in getting an official elected to office. Election promises, however, have been increasingly viewed with skepticism due to the nature of a politician to break them once in office.

Elections promises are a large part of an election platform, which includes several ideas with differing specificity. These ideas of a political platform include general policies, but politicians make sure to also include actual promises that they intend to keep once elected. They are an essential element in getting people to vote for a candidate. For example, a promise such as to cut taxes or to introduce new social programs may appeal to voters.

Broken promises

The public perceive that a great number of election promises are broken. Many regard this as a severe issue that disaffects people from the entire political process, increasing apathy and lowering voter turnout. Election promises are very often broken, though defining a 'broken promise' can be difficult. Popular cynicism and 24-hour media has increased the public's perception of 'lies' and broken promises since 1945, despite the actual amount of promises broken remaining roughly level at less than 20% over that time.[1]

There are strong pressures on politicians to make promises which they cannot keep. A party that does not make exaggerated promises might appear bland, unambitious, and uninteresting to voters compared to the one that does. Sometimes this can give the exaggerating party an advantage over the truthful one. Government finances are extremely complex and promises are vague enough that the media and public can rarely say for certain that the numbers do not add up. Thus almost all parties continue to promise lower taxes, more social programs, and a balanced budget. For instance George W. Bush in the 2000 American presidential election promised all three and in the end abandoned balanced budgets. In the 2003 provincial election in Ontario, Canada, the Liberal Party also made all three promises and raised taxes once it found itself in government with an unbalanced budget.

Promises are usually based on the rosiest of possible futures, a strong economy and cooperative leaders of legislatures and sub-national entities. Actual government planning done by bureaucrats generally plans for the worst possible future, but any politician that would plan in this manner would have a platform that is far less attractive than that of their opponents.

Adding caveats to promises based on economic performance would hurt the politician, and is also difficult to do in ten second news sound bites or thirty second commercials.

There is some latitude for breaking promises. George W. Bush's pledge to not involve the U.S. military in nation building[citation needed] was discarded after the September 11th attacks, a change in policy widely viewed as justifiable among his supporters.[citation needed] Franklin Roosevelt's 1940 pledge to keep the United States out of World War II was similarly abandoned after the Pearl Harbor attack, prompting a voter backlash in the 1942 midterm elections.

Election promises differ in different government systems. In the Westminster System, where almost all power resides in the office of the Prime Minister, voters know where to ascribe blame for broken promises. In presidential systems such as that in the United States, where power is more diffuse and ultimate responsibility harder to pin down, it is harder for an electorate to punish politicians for broken promises. For instance in the United States a presidential candidate can freely make promises of an impractically large tax cut in the firm confidence that the Senate will reduce it to a manageable level.

The constant stream of broken promises has annoyed many voters and politicians have responded with techniques to make their promises more believable. This includes making far more specific promises with numbers attached. The 1993 Canadian Liberal Red Book was an example of this. Also popular is setting a more specific time for when promises will be implemented, with politicians listing what they will do in their first week or first hundred days in office.

When promises are to be broken, all politicians know it is best to do so at the start of a term. Thus, the first budget is the one most likely to see unexpected tax hikes or slashed spending. The hope is that by the time the next election occurs in a few years' time, the anger of the electorate will have faded.

Similarly politicians often save popular, but relatively unimportant promises, for the end of their term to be implemented just before they are up for reelection while the electors still remember them.

Case study: Richard Nixon's Election promises

In the 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon stated that "new leadership will end the war" in Vietnam. He never used the phrase "secret plan", which originated with a reporter looking for a lead to a story summarizing the Republican candidate's (hazy) promise to end the war without losing. When pressed for details, Nixon retreated to the position that to tip his hand would interfere with the negotiations that had begun in Paris. Although it has been claimed that Nixon never disavowed the term,[1] in at a 1968 fundraiser dinner, in discussing ending the Vietnam War, Nixon said "There is no easy way, there is no gimmick, there is no secret plan."[2] Also, in a 1968 interview, Nixon said he had "no magic formula" or "gimmick" for ending the Vietnam War.[3] In his own memoirs, Nixon stated he never claimed to have such a plan.[4][5] Nevertheless, Nixon's critics have continued to accuse him of campaigning on a "secret plan" to end the war.

According to one historian, "it became obvious in 1969 that Nixon's 'secret plan' to end the war was a campaign gimmick..."[6]

Another historian wrote: "Nixon never had a plan to end the war, but he did have a general strategy--to increase pressure on the communists [and] issue them a November 1, 1969 deadline to be conciliatory or else...The North Vietnamese did not respond to Nixon's ultimatum...and his aides began planning Operation Duck Hook."[7]

Nixon told Michigan Republican congressman Donald Riegle that the war would be over within six months of his assumption of office.

As this six-month deadline approached, in May 1969, Henry Kissinger asked a group of Quakers to give the administration six more months. "Give us six months, and if we haven't ended the war by then, you can come back and tear down the White House fence."[8]

The election promises of the Nixon administration had positive results for the White House. Many potential peace activists were not ready to march on the Pentagon...until Nixon was given a fair chance. After all, troops were being withdrawn, the bombing had stopped, and diplomats were talking in Paris.[9] In addition, as the White House gradually pulled troops from Vietnam, the media shifted from the destruction of Vietnam—even while the U.S. air war and coordinated ground assaults in Southeast Asia persisted at a very high rate of killing.[10]

The executive producer of the ABC evening news, Av Westin, wrote a memo in March 1969 that stated:

"I have asked our Vietnam staff to alter the focus of their coverage from combat pieces to interpretive ones, pegged to the eventual pull-out of the American forces. This point should be stressed for all hands."[2]

And Westin telexed the ABC network's Saigon bureau:

"I think the time has come to shift some of our focus from the battlefield, or more specifically American military involvement with the enemy, to themes and stories under the general heading 'We Are on Our Way Out of Vietnam.'"[11]

American combat deaths for the first half of 1969 increased rather than decreased during the time in which the plan was allegedly being implemented.[12]

In 1972, Nixon also promised that "peace is at hand".[13] On January 27, 1973, at the beginning of Nixon's second term, representatives of the US, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong signed the Paris Peace Accords, which formally ended US involvement in the war.

The Nixon Administration six month's promise is similar to the Philippine-American War 1900 promise of Republicans who pledged that the fighting in the Philippines would end within sixty days of McKinley's re-election.[14] It, however, took a lot longer.

Lists of broken promises (not exhaustive)

  • The British Liberal Party's pledge to cut military spending, before embarking on the Dreadnought arms race with Germany.
  • The British Labour Party's 1945 pledge to set up a new ministry of housing.
  • Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, in 1987, said that "by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty"
  • George H. W. Bush promised not to raise taxes while president during his 1988 campaign. This was best remembered in a speech at the Republican National Convention when he said "Congress will push and push...and I'll say Read my lips: no new taxes".[3] After a recession began during his term and the deficit widened, Bush agreed to proposals to increase taxes. Although not the only broken promise concerning taxes, it was by far the most famous.
  • In 1994, upon entering Italian politics, media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi promised that he would sell his assets in Fininvest (later Mediaset), because of the conflict of interest it would have generated, a promise he repeated a number of times in later years, but after 12 years and having served three terms as prime minister, he still retains ownership of his company that controls virtually all the Italian private TV stations and a large number of magazines and publishing houses, which have extensively been used in favour of his political party
  • Australian Prime Minister John Howard in 1995 that the GST would "never ever"[4] be part of Liberal policy (the tax package was not implemented that term but was put to the Australian people at the next election in 1998 that re-elected Howard)
  • In Ireland, Fianna Fáil's 2002 election promise to "permanently end all hospital waiting lists" by 2004 and to "create a world class health service" through reform and expanding healthcare coverage with "200,000 extra medical cards".[5]
  • The Liberal Democrats' pledge not to increase tuition fees, whereupon it formed a coalition with the Conservative Party and soon after voted for a threefold increase in tuition fees.
  • When asked about the issue of carbon taxation, Prime Minister Julia Gillard responded by saying "There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead, but lets be absolutely clear. I am determined to price carbon".[6] In February 2011, Gillard then announced a carbon pricing mechanism in order to secure a minority government. This has been construed by some as being a broken promise, with debate centering on whether or not a fixed price leading into a trading scheme can be called a 'tax'.
  • The then Irish Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore infamously said in the run to the 2011 general election "It's Frankfurt's way or Labour's way" in reference to the EU/IMF deal but then went on to accept the deal.[7]
  • President Barack Obama vowed repeatedly during the 2008 election to close the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but the prison is still open as of 2015.

See also


  1. ^ Parmet, Herbert S. (December 1989). The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War. Little Brown & Co. ISBN 0-19-509377-1.  p. 116 "Nixon didn't invent the phrase, which originated with a reporter looking for a lead to a story summarizing the Republican candidate's (hazy) promise to end the war without losing. But neither did he disavow the term, and it soon became a part of the campaign. When pressed for details, Nixon retreated to the not indefensible position that to tip his hand would interfere with the negotiations that had begun in Paris."; Parmet, Herbert S. (December 1989). Richard Nixon and His America. Little Brown & Co. ISBN 0-316-69232-8.  Stated evidence suggests that Nixon never used the term, and that it actually came from a question by a voter at a New Hampshire campaign stop.
  2. ^ "Nixon: Vietnam Shows Need for 'New Diplomacy'". Cedar Rapids Gazette (Iowa). March 20, 1968. p. 62. 
  3. ^ Morin, Relman (March 14, 1968). "Nixon Plans to Unfold Peace Plan When He Campaigns Against LBJ". Press Telegram (Long Beach, Cal.). p. 10. 
  4. ^ Nixon, Richard. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.  p. 298
  5. ^ Coleman, Fred (1997). The Decline and Fall of Soviet Empire : Forty Years That Shook The World, From Stalin to Yeltsin. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-312-16816-0.  p. 203
  6. ^ Anderson, Terry; Small, Melvin (1990). "Review of Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves". The American Historical Review (The American Historical Review, Vol. 95, No. 3) 95 (3): 944–945. JSTOR 2164514. doi:10.2307/2164514. 
  7. ^ Small, Melvin (April 1988). Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-1288-3.  p. 174; Zaroulis, Nancy and Gerald Sullivan (1984). Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the War in Vietnam, 1963-1975. Doubleday. ISBN 0-03-005603-9.  p. 217
  8. ^ Small p. 162
  9. ^ Small p. 179
  10. ^ Strauss, Robert S. (Summer 1984). "What's Right with U. S. Campaigns". Foreign Policy 55: 15. doi:10.2307/1148378. 
  11. ^ See U.S. presidential election, 1900 Misleading Philippine War claims by the Republicans
  12. ^ Small, p. 166; Riegle, Don (1972). O Congress. Doubleday.  p. 20; Kalb, Marvin and Bernard (1974). Kissinger. Hutchison. ISBN.  p. 120; Hersh, Seymour M. (1983). The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. Summit Books. ISBN 0-671-44760-2.  p. 119
  13. ^ Solomon, Norman (December 22, 2005). "A New Phase of Bright Spinning Lies About Iraq". 


  1. ^ Stoker (2006). Why Politics Matters. Palgrave Macmillan. 
  2. ^ Norman Solomon (2010). War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 124. ISBN 978-1-118-04032-4. 
  3. ^ How Headline Writers Read Bush's Lips, Reading Eagle, July 5, 1990, p.9.
  4. ^ John Howard's a lesson for second coming, The Australian, August 30, 2008.
  5. ^
  6. ^ "The tax that’s not a tax". March 10, 2013. 
  7. ^