Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Informational Role of Party Leader Changes on Voter Perceptions of Party Positions

  • Pablo Fernandez-Vazquez and Zeynep Somer-Topcu


According to spatial models of elections, citizen perceptions of party policy positions are a key determinant of voting choices. Yet recent scholarship from Europe suggests that voters do not adjust their perceptions according to what parties advocate in their campaigns. This article argues that voters develop a more accurate understanding of parties’ ideological positions following a leadership change because a new leader increases the credibility of party policy offerings. Focusing on Western European parties in the 1979–2012 period, it shows that having a new leader is a necessary condition for voters to more accurately perceive the left–right placements of opposition parties. Voters do not use party platforms to form perceptions of incumbent parties’ positions, regardless of whether the leader is new or veteran. These results have important implications for models of party competition and democratic representation.



Hide All

Carlos III – Juan March Institute (email:; Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin (email: We would like to thank James Adams, Alex Branham, Stefan Dahlberg, Lawrence Ezrow, Margit Tavits, Joshua Tucker, Daniel Weitzel, Christopher Wlezien and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. We are also grateful to Mollie Cohen, Hilary Dennen, Matthew Layton and Claire Verville for their superb research assistance. Both authors equally contributed to this article, which has previously been presented at the 2014 MPSA annual conference, the 2014 APSA conference, Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University, the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin. Data replication sets are available at: and online appendices are available at



Hide All
Adams, James. 2012. Causes and Electoral Consequences of Party Policy Shifts in Multiparty Elections: Theoretical Results and Empirical Evidence. Annual Review of Political Science 15 (1):401419.
Adams, James, Green, Jane, and Milazzo, Caitlin. 2012a. Who Moves? Elite Depolarization in Britain, 1987–2001. Electoral Studies 31 (4):653655.
Adams, James, Green, Jane, and Milazzo, Caitlin. 2012b. Has the British Public Depolarized Along with Political Elites? An American Perspective on British Public Opinion. Comparative Political Studies 45 (4):507530.
Adams, James, Ezrow, Lawrence, and Somer-Topcu, Zeynep. 2011. Is Anybody Listening? Evidence that Voters do not Respond to European Parties’ Policy Programmes. American Journal of Political Science 55 (2):370382.
Adams, James, Ezrow, Lawrence, and Somer-Topcu, Zeynep. 2014. Do Voters Respond to Party Manifestos or to A Wider Information Environment? An Analysis of Mass-Elite Linkages on European Integration. American Journal of Political Science 58 (4):967978.
Adams, James, Clark, Michael, and Glasgow, Garrett. 2006. Are Niche Parties Fundamentally Different from Mainstream Parties? The Causes and Consequences of Western European Parties’ Policy Shifts, 1976–1998. American Journal of Political Science 50 (3):512529.
Aldrich, John, Dorabantu, Sinziana Popa, Fernandez, Marco Antonio, Ley, Sandra, and Schober, Gregory. 2011. When Does the Left-Right Dimension Have Meaning to Voters in an Election? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Seattle, WA, 1–4 September 2011.
Alvarez, R. Michael. 1997. Information and Elections. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Alvarez, R. Michael, Nagler, Jonathan, and Bowler, Shaun. 2000. Issues, Economics, and the Dynamics of Multiparty Elections: The British 1987 General Election. American Political Science Review 94 (1):131149.
Andersson, Staffan, Bergman, Torbjörn, and Ersson, Svante. 2014. The European Representative Democracy Data Archive, Release 3. Main sponsor: Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. Available from, accessed 14 December 2016.
Angrist, Joshua D., and Pischke, Jorn-Steffen. 2009. Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist Companion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
APSA, Committee on Political Parties. 1950. Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System: A Report. New York: Rinehart.
Banks, Jeffrey. 1990. A Model of Electoral Competition with Incomplete Information. Journal of Economic Theory 50 (2):309325.
Barabas, Jason, and Jerit, Jennifer. 2009. Estimating the Causal Effects of Media Coverage on Policy-Specific Knowledge. American Journal of Political Science 53 (1):7389.
Bartels, Larry M. 1993. Messages Received: The Political Impact of Media Exposure. American Political Science Review 87 (2):267285.
Bartels, Larry M. 1996. Uninformed Voters: Information Effects in Presidential Elections. American Journal of Political Science 40 (1):194230.
Bartels, Larry M. 2002. Beyond the ‘Running Tally’: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions. Political Behavior 24 (2):117150.
Bawn, Kathleen, and Somer-Topcu, Zeynep. 2012. Government versus Opposition at the Polls: How Governing Status Affects the Impact of Policy Positions. American Journal of Political Science 56 (2):433446.
Benoit, Kenneth, Laver, Michael, and Mikhaylov, Slava. 2009. Treating Words as Data with Error: Uncertainty in Text Statements of Policy Positions. American Journal of Political Science 53 (2):495513.
Benoit, Kenneth, Conway, Drew, Lauderdale, Benjamin E., Laver, Michael, and Mikhaylov, Slava. 2016. Crowd-Sourced Coding of Political Text. American Political Science Review 110 (2):278295.
Bergounioux, Alan, and Grunberg, Gérard. 2005. L’Ambition et le Remords: Les Socialistes Français et le Pouvoir (1905–2005). Paris: Fayard.
Bittner, Amanda. 2011. Platform or Personality?: The Role of Party Leaders in Elections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brockington, David. 2009. It’s About the Benefits: Choice Environments, Ideological Proximity, and Individual Participation in 28 Democracies. Party Politics 15 (4):435454.
Budge, Ian, Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, Volkens, Andrea, Tannenbaum, Eric, and Bara, Judith. 2001. Mapping Policy Preferences: Estimates for Parties, Electors, and Governments 19451998 . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Callander, Steven, and Wilkie, Simon. 2007. Lies, Damned Lies, and Political Campaigns. Games and Economic Behavior 60 (2):262286.
Cameron, Colin A., Gelbach, Jonah B., and Miller, Douglas L.. 2008. Bootstrap-Based Improvements for Inference with Clustered Errors. The Review of Economics and Statistics 90 (3):414427.
Cho, Sungdai, and Endersby, James W.. 2003. Issues, Spatial Models of Voting and British General Election: A Comparison of Proximity and Directional Models. Public Choice 114 (3):275293.
Clark, Michael, and Leiter, Debra. 2014. Does the Ideological Dispersion of Parties Mediate the Electoral Impact of Valence? A Cross-National Study of Party Support in Nine Western European Democracies. Comparative Political Studies 47 (2):171202.
Costa-Lobo, Marina, and Curtice, John (eds). 2015. Personality Politics? The Role of Leader Evaluations in Democratic Elections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dalton, Russell J., and McAllister, Ian. 2015. Random Walk or Planned Excursion? Continuity and Change in the Left-Right Positions of Political Parties. Comparative Political Studies 48 (6):759787.
Dalton, J. Russell, and Wattenberg, Martin P. (eds). 2000. Parties without Partisans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.
Erikson, Robert S., MacKuen, Michael B., and Stimson, James A.. 2002. The Macro Polity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Esarey, Justin, and Menger, Andrew. 2015. Practical and Effective Approaches to Dealing with Clustered Data. Department of Political Science, Rice University, Houston, TX. Unpublished Manuscript.
Evans, Geoffrey, and Andersen, Robert. 2006. The Political Conditioning of Economic Perceptions. The Journal of Politics 68 (1):194207.
Ezrow, Lawrence, de Vries, Catherine, Steenbergen, Marco, and Edwards, Erica. 2011. Mean Voter Representation and Partisan Constituency Representation: Do Parties Respond to the Mean Voter Position or to Their Supporters? Party Politics 17 (3):275301.
Ezrow, Lawrence, and Xezonakis, Georgios. 2016. Satisfaction with Democracy and Voter Turnout: A Temporal Perspective. Party Politics 22 (1):314.
Fernandez-Vazquez, Pablo. 2014. And Yet It Moves: The Effect of Election Platforms on Party Policy Images. Comparative Political Studies 47 (14):19191944.
Fernandez-Vazquez, Pablo. 2015. Signaling Policy Positions in Election Campaigns. Vanderbilt University: Nashville, TN.
Fernandez-Vazquez, Pablo and Somer-Topcu, Zeynep, 2017. Replication Data for: The Informational Role of Party Leader Changes on Voter Perceptions of Party Positions, doi:10.7910/DVN/9GFJEA, Harvard Dataverse, V1, UNF:6:9uPfHxgaUxjY7avuPhbd2g==
Fortunato, David, and Stevenson, Randolph T.. 2013. Perceptions of Partisan Ideologies: The Effect of Coalition Participation. American Journal of Political Science 57 (2):459477.
Franklin, Charles H. 1991. Eschewing Obfuscation? Campaigns and the Perception of U.S. Senate Incumbents. American Political Science Review 85 (4):11931214.
Freedman, Paul, Franz, Michael, and Goldstein, Kenneth. 2004. Campaign Advertising and Democratic Citizenship. American Journal of Political Science 48 (4):723741.
Garzia, Diego. 2014. Personalization of Politics and Electoral Change. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gomez, Brad T., and Wilson, J. Matthew. 2001. Political Sophistication and Economic Voting in the American Electorate: A Theory of Heterogenous Attribution. American Journal of Political Science 45 (4):899914.
Gomibuchi, Seishi. 2001. Followers and Leadership Durability: An Analysis of Leadership Support in the New Zealand Labour Party: 1990–1996. PhD Dissertation. University of Canterbury, Canterbury, New Zealand.
Grynaviski, Jeffrey D. 2010. Partisan Bonds: Political Reputations and Legislative Accountability. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Heath, Anthony F., Jowell, Roger, and Curtice, John (eds). 1994. Labour’s Last Chance? The 1992 Election and Beyond . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hillygus, D. Sunshine, and Jackman, Simon. 2003. Voter Decision Making in Election 2000: Campaign Effects, Partisan Activation, and the Clinton Legacy. American Journal of Political Science 47 (4):583596.
Hooghe, Liesbet, Marks, Gary, and Wilson, Carole J.. 2002. Does Left/Right Structure Party Positions on European Integration? Comparative Political Studies 35 (8):965989.
Ignazi, Piero. 1994. Posfascisti? Dal Movimiento Sociale Italiano ad Alleanza Nazionale. Bologna: Il Mulino.
Iyengar, Shanto, and Simon, Adam F.. 2000. New Perspectives and Evidence on Political Communication and Campaign Effects. Annual Review of Psychology 51:149169.
Kim, Heemin, and Fording, Richard C.. 1998. Voter Ideology in Western Democracies, 1946–1989. European Journal of Political Research 33 (1):7397.
King, Gary, and Roberts, Margaret E.. 2015. How Robust Standard Errors Expose Methodological Problems They Do Not Fix, and What To Do About It. Political Analysis 23 (2):159179.
Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, Volkens, Andrea, Bara, Judith, Budge, Ian, and McDonald, Michael. 2006. Mapping Policy Preferences II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lachat, Romain. 2008. The Impact of Party Polarization on Ideological Voting. Electoral Studies 27 (4):687698.
Laver, Michael, and Budge, Ian. 1992. Party Policy and Coalition Policy in Europe. London: Macmillan.
Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Berelson, Bernard, and Gaudet, Hazel. 1968 [1944]. The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lowe, William, Benoit, Kenneth, Mikhaylov, Slava, and Laver, Michael. 2011. Scaling Policy Preferences from Coded Political Texts. Legislative Studies Quarterly 36 (1):123155.
Lupia, Arthur, and McCubbins, Matthew D.. 1998. The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lupu, Noam. 2014. Brand Dilution and the Breakdown of Political Parties in Latin America. World Politics 66 (4):561602.
McDonald, Michael D., and Budge, Ian. 2005. Elections, Parties, Democracy: Conferring the Median Mandate. New York: Oxford University Press.
Meguid, Bonnie M. 2005. Competition Between Unequals: The Role of Mainstream Party Strategy in Niche Party Success. American Political Science Review 39 (3):347359.
Mikhaylov, Slava, Laver, Michael, and Benoit, Kenneth R.. 2012. Coder Reliability and Misclassification in the Human Coding of Party Manifestos. Political Analysis 20 (1):7891.
Mughan, Anthony. 2000. Media and the Presidentialization of Parliamentary Elections. London: Macmillan.
Mutlu-Eren, Hande, Somer-Topcu, Zeynep, and Weitzel, Daniel. 2016. Is Change Good? The Electoral Consequences of Party Leadership Changes. University of Texas at Austin. Unpublished manuscript.
Pedersen, Helene Helboe, and Schumacher, Gijs. 2015. Do Leadership Changes Improve Electoral Performance? In The Politics of Party Leadership: A Cross-National Perspective, edited by William Cross and Jean Benoit Pilet, 149164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pierce, Roy. 1999. Mass-Elite Issue Linkages and the Responsible Party Model of Representation. In Policy Representation in Western Democracies, edited by Warren Miller et al., 932. New York: Oxford University Press.
Poguntke, Thomas, and Webb, Paul D. (eds). 2005. The Presidentialization of Politics: A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seyd, Patrick. 1992. Labour: The Great Transformation. In Britain at the Polls 1992, edited by Anthony King, 70100. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers.
Slothuus, Rune, and de Vreese, Claes H.. 2010. Political Parties, Motivated Reasoning, and Issue Framing Effects. The Journal of Politics 72 (3):630645.
Smith, Martin J. 1994. Understanding the ‘Politics of Catch-Up’: The Modernization of the Labour Party. Political Studies 42 (4):708715.
Somer-Topcu, Zeynep. 2009. Responsible Agents? Public Opinion, Uncertainty and Party Policy Change in Established Democracies. University of California: Davis.
Somer-Topcu, Zeynep. 2017. Agree or Disagree: How do Party Leader Changes Affect the Distribution of Voters’ Perceptions. Party Politics 23 (1):6675.
Tomz, Michael, and Van Houweling, Robert P.. 2012a. Candidate Repositioning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. Unpublished manuscript.
Tomz, Michael, and Van Houweling, Robert P.. 2012b. Policy Pledges as Credible Commitments. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. Unpublished manuscript.
Tomz, Michael, Wittenberg, Jason, and King, Gary. 2003. Clarify: Software for Interpreting and Presenting Statistical Results. Journal of Statistical Software 8 (1):130.
van der Brug, Wouter, Fennema, Meindert, and Tillie, Jean. 2005. Why Some Anti-immigrant Parties Fail and Others Succeed: A Two-step Model of Aggregate Electoral Support. Comparative Political Studies 38 (5):537573.
van der Eijk, Cees, and Niemoeller, Broer. 1983. Electoral Change in the Netherlands: Empirical Results and Methods of Measurement. Amsterdam: CT Press.
Vavreck, Lynn. 2009. The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Williams, Laron K., and Whitten, Guy D.. 2011. Dynamic Simulations of Autoregressive Relationships. Stata Journal 11 (4):577588.
Williams, Laron K. 2012. But Wait, There’s More! Maximizing Substantive Inferences from TSCS Models. Journal of Politics 74 (3):685693.
Zaller, John. 1990. Political Awareness, Elite Opinion Leadership, and the Mass Survey Response. Social Cognition 8 (1):125153.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Fernandez-Vazquez and Somer-Topcu Dataset

Supplementary materials

Fernandez-Vazquez and Somer-Topcu supplementary material
Online Appendix

 PDF (2.0 MB)
2.0 MB

The Informational Role of Party Leader Changes on Voter Perceptions of Party Positions

  • Pablo Fernandez-Vazquez and Zeynep Somer-Topcu


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.