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Election promise

Election promise

An election promise is a promise made to the public by a politician who is trying to win an election. They have long been a central element of elections and remain so today. Election promises are also notable for often being broken once a politician is in office.

Elections promises are part of an election platform, but platforms also contain vague ideals and generalities as well as specific promises. 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

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 have been broken for as long as elections have been held and this is likely to continue.

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 was discarded after the September 11th attacks, a change in policy widely viewed as justifiable among his supporters. 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.

It has been argued that governments in general should not be elected for what they promise, but rather for their ability to deal with the unexpected. Factors such as competence, honesty, ideology, and experience are in many ways a better method of judging a party or politician than their promises that may or may not be kept. This is reflected in actual elections where a politician's character, the party that they belong to, and factors like scandals have a far greater impact on how people vote than specific election promises.

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 three or four 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.

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. Nixon never disavowed the term. In his own memoirs, Nixon stated he never claimed to have such a plan. Nevertheless, Nixon's critics have continued to accuse him of campaigning on a "secret plan" to end the war.

According to one historian: " became obvious in 1969 that Nixon's 'secret plan' to end the war was a campaign gimmick..."

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."

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."

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. 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.

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."

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.'"

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

In 1972 Nixon also promised that "peace is at hand". 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.

Lists of broken promises


  1. Parmet, Herbert S. (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."; Stated evidence suggests that Nixon never used the term, and the actually came from a question by a voter at a New Hampshire campaign stop.
  2. p. 198
  3. 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
  4. Anderson, Terry (1990). "Review of Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves". The American Historical Review 95 (3): 944–945.
  5. Small, Melvin (1988). Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-1288-3. p. 174; p. 217
  6. Small p. 162
  7. Small p. 179
  8. Strauss, Robert S. (Summer, 1984). "What's Right with U. S. Campaigns". Foreign Policy 55 15.
  9. See U.S. presidential election, 1900 Misleading Philippine War claims by the Republicans
  10. Small, p. 166;Riegle, Don (1972). O Congress. Doubleday. p. 20; p. 120; p. 119
  11. Solomon, Norman "A New Phase of Bright Spinning Lies About Iraq".

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