Signal received? Authoritarian elections and the salience of autocrats

Raphael Cunha, Paul Schuler, Scott Williamson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A large literature on authoritarian elections suggests they allow autocrats to signal strength while also acting as focal points for opposition. These theories rest on the assumption that authoritarian elections attract the public's attention, but we know little about how attention shifts in these elections and toward whom. We expect that elections should increase the salience of both autocrats and their opponents, and we argue that opponents may gain nearly as much attention as autocrats despite restrictions inherent to these political systems. We confirm these patterns using Google Trends search data, which shows that opponents experience average boosts almost as large as those for autocrats. These increases are substantively large enough to indicate that opponents, who are typically starved of attention, attract similar public interest during election periods as autocrats do in non-electoral periods. The findings contribute to understanding how elections create opportunities but also risks for autocrats.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number102441
JournalElectoral Studies
StatePublished - Apr 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Political Science and International Relations


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