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

Abstract

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.

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Carlos III – Juan March Institute (email: pablofernandez@march.es); Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin (email: zsomer@utexas.edu). 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: https://dx.doi.org/10.7910/DVN/9GFJEA and online appendices are available at https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123417000047.

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