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Who Responds? Voters, Parties and Issue Attention

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2014

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Abstract

Do parties listen to their voters? This article addresses this important question by moving beyond position congruence to explore whether parties respond to voters’ issue priorities. It argues that political parties respond to voters in their election manifestos, but that their responsiveness varies across different party types: namely, that large parties are more responsive to voters’ policy priorities, while government parties listen less to voters’ issue demands. The study also posits that niche parties are not generally more responsive to voter demands, but that they are more responsive to the concerns of their supporters in their owned issue areas. To test these theoretical expectations, the study combines data from the Comparative Manifestos Project with data on voters’ policy priorities from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems and various national election studies across eighteen European democracies in sixty-three elections from 1972–2011. Our findings have important implications for understanding political representation and democratic linkage.

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Articles
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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

One of the central functions of parties in democracies is to link citizens with political decision makers.Footnote 1 In recent years, however, there has been concern about whether parties still perform this important role in the face of increasing partisan dealignment.Footnote 2 Stimson et al. developed the concept of dynamic representation to describe how a party shifts its policy position in response to changes in public opinion.Footnote 3 Parties that have not been responsive to voters’ issue concerns can lose voters to newly formed parties. Kitschelt, for example, argued that left-libertarian parties are likely to form when ‘the unresponsiveness of existing political institutions coincides with favourable political opportunities’.Footnote 4 The formation of European green parties is often attributed to the interaction of these two conditions.Footnote 5 More recently, we have seen the development of Pirate parties in many countries, which is largely a result of other parties’ failure to respond to voters’ policy concerns regarding information privacy, transparency and sharing. However, not all parties are equally responsive. Those that are more focused on policy, for example, may be less responsive to the demands of the electorate as a whole than they are to those of their own supporters.Footnote 6 Adams et al. and Ezrow et al., for example, find distinct differences between the responsiveness of mainstream and niche parties to the electorate as a whole.Footnote 7

Much of the current research on party responsiveness to voters has focused on preference congruence. Specifically, it has examined how parties’ policy positions are influenced by changes in voter preferences.Footnote 8 In other words, if the electorate shifts to the right, then the expectation is that parties will move their positions to the right. While this research has significantly advanced our understanding of the relationship between parties and voters, it has not addressed how parties respond to voters’ issue priorities. A second area of research, which has focused on the relationship between citizens’ policy priorities and government policy, has sought to address how voters’ issue priorities affect government policy.Footnote 9 However, the literature to date has not examined political parties’ responsiveness to voters’ issue priorities in their election manifestos. In this article, we seek to bridge these research areas by studying whether political parties listen to their voters when deciding which policy issues they emphasize in their election manifestos, and how responsiveness may vary across party types (see also Wagner and Meyer’s study on how party organization can influence responsiveness).Footnote 10 Importantly, we also build on current research that focuses on how voters’ choices are influenced by the issues that parties emphasize and those in which they are perceived to have competences.Footnote 11

Current research has offered some insight into what determines the amount of attention that parties pay to political issues. Parties’ policy priorities are based on the issues they own, they are placed on the agenda by issue entrepreneurs or other parties in the system, and they are affected by the political and economic context.Footnote 12 In line with these previous findings, we posit that political parties not only respond to shifts in voter preferences, but that they also listen to voters when deciding which policy issues to emphasize. Thus, similar to Spoon and Klüver, we argue that there is a positive relationship between the attention that voters pay to a given policy issue and the attention that parties devote to the issue.Footnote 13 However, while Spoon and Klüver demonstrate that the electoral context (whether it is a national election or an election to the European Parliament) has an important impact on the degree of issue responsiveness of political parties, they focus less on the ways in which parties’ characteristics could affect party responsiveness.Footnote 14 In this article, we recognize that there are important differences among parties; our central argument is that several features condition party responsiveness – namely party size, type and governing status. We thus seek to understand not only when parties are more responsive to voters’ issue priorities, but which parties are more responsive.

To understand the relationship between parties and voters and how it differs across parties, we examine the responsiveness of party election manifestos to voters’ issue priorities from 1972 to 2011 in eighteen European countries. More specifically, we analyze the responsiveness of 130 parties across thirteen issue areas in sixty-three national elections. We consider political parties to be responsive to their voters if an increase in voter attention to a given policy issue leads to an increase in party attention to that issue. We measure party issue attention using data from the Comparative Manifestos Project (CMP). Issue priorities of the entire electorate are measured using data on the most important issue/problem, which we obtained from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems and various national election studies.

Our findings have important implications for understanding the nature of political representation across parties in Europe. We show that parties indeed respond to voters’ issue priorities, but that parties’ responsiveness importantly varies across party type. While larger parties are more responsive to voters’ priorities, governing parties are, on average, less responsive to citizens’ policy concerns. Our analysis demonstrates that niche parties are, overall, neither more nor less responsive than other political parties. However, when we examine green party responsiveness in the area of environmental protection, we find that that they are more responsive to their supporters. Hence, political parties do listen to their voters and therefore play an important role in linking citizens to political decision making. Importantly, party type affects the nature of responsiveness, as not all parties respond equally to voter priorities.

This article proceeds as follows. First, we present our theoretical argument about party responsiveness and how it is conditioned by party characteristics, and derive hypotheses that guide the empirical analysis. Then we elaborate on our data and methods, including how we created our issue categories. Next, we present the results of our empirical analysis and conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for political representation.

PARTIES AND ISSUE RESPONSIVENESS

In this section, we first outline our assumptions about party behaviour, from which we derive the argument that parties are responsive to voters’ issue priorities. We then present our argument for why responsiveness differs across parties.

Issue Responsiveness of Political Parties

To understand parties’ responsiveness to voters’ policy priorities, we need to understand what drives their behaviour. Political parties are typically conceptualized as rational, goal-oriented and purposeful collective actors that aim to maximize the achievement of their preferences.Footnote 15 We assume that parties may pursue two different goals. First, Riker suggested that parties are primarily office-seeking actors that pursue executive offices.Footnote 16 Accordingly, parties seek to win elections for instrumental reasons, as they are primarily interested in obtaining control of political offices. Secondly, De Swaan argued, in contrast, that parties are policy-seeking actors. According to this party behaviour model, political parties value certain policy goals, which motivate their actions.Footnote 17 As Strøm and Müller have pointed out, these goals are not necessarily independent of each other. Political parties might instrumentally strive for offices in order to implement their preferred policies. Similarly, political parties might instrumentally seek to achieve policy goals in order to attract voters and ultimately gain control over executive offices.Footnote 18 It is therefore not surprising that research on party competition has been characterized by a long-standing debate about which of these goals most adequately captures party behaviour.Footnote 19 Thus we do not assume that either of these goals solely explains party behaviour. Instead, we posit that both goals affect behaviour, but that there are important differences with regard to party type: some parties value office goals over policy goals, while other parties primarily act as policy seekers.

To win office, parties need to attract as many voters as possible. However, policy positions may be difficult to change, as parties are committed to certain positions due to their ideology or reputation.Footnote 20 Thus another important and promising instrument through which parties can gain votes is the attention they pay to different political issues. We therefore assume that rational, goal-oriented parties will seek to emphasize the issues that voters prioritize as a means to win political office. We build on the saliency theory of party competition and the issue ownership model and argue that, to win elections, parties will focus on the issues that voters emphasize.Footnote 21 When voters change their issue priorities, we expect parties to follow. Just as voters are often retrospective, we argue that parties also act retrospectively.Footnote 22 Importantly, the goals the party prioritizes will influence how responsive it is. Thus a policy-driven party may be less responsive to the electorate than an office-driven party, for example. Adams and Somer-Topcu have demonstrated that parties gain votes in the current election when they have moderated their positions in the previous election (that is, there is a lagged effect of responsiveness).Footnote 23 Building on this finding, we argue that parties need time to process voters’ demands, and thus will respond in the subsequent election.

This expectation also reflects what often happens in electoral campaigns. If a party has lost votes to a rival party at t −1 , it will seek to recover these votes in the subsequent election, t 0 . Thus at t 0 , the party is essentially responding to the voters’ preferences at t −1 . Several examples illustrate this lagged effect. In response to the French Front National’s advancement to the second round of the presidential contest in 2002, the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire moved to the right on immigration and law and order issues in the 2007 election.Footnote 24 Spoon et al. similarly find that a party’s emphasis on environmental issues is directly affected by the green party’s vote share in the previous election.Footnote 25 Accordingly, we expect that the conservative Swedish Moderaterna will most likely respond to the immigration issue in its election manifesto for the September 2014 general election, an issue prioritized by voters of the far-right Sverigedemokraterna, which won 5.7 per cent of the vote and twenty seats in 2010. Following this understanding of party responsiveness, our first hypothesis is as follows.

Hypothesis 1: The more attention voters paid to a given policy issue in the previous election (t −1), the higher the attention that parties pay to this issue in the current election (t0).

Are Some Parties more Responsive?

Parties vary in several important ways – for example in size, governing status, intraparty democracy, ideological breadth and issue focus. Based on these differences, scholars have developed different party types, including the mass and cadre party, the catch-all party, the electoral-professional party, the cartel party and, most recently, the niche party.Footnote 26 These characteristics have been shown to influence parties’ goals and the decisions that they make. Parties’ behaviour is motivated by emphasizing different goals, and depending on the goal that is emphasized, behaviour may vary. For example, if a party primarily focuses on policy, it may choose to only focus on a specific set of issues in the election campaign or to stay out of government if participating involves too much compromise of its core policies, as has been the case with the Swedish Green Party – Miljöpartiet de Gröna.Footnote 27

Compared to smaller parties, large parties tend to be office seeking and follow a broad ideological appeal, whereas small parties are often more ideologically consistent and more focused on policy.Footnote 28 Large parties are often referred to as catch-all parties and seek to bring as many voters into their tent as they can.Footnote 29 Over time, these parties may change their ideological position or issue focus to attract more voters, as the British Conservative Party has done under David Cameron’s leadership.Footnote 30 Conversely, smaller parties’ size is often due to the choices they have made regarding policy positions and issue priorities. Small parties may have decided not to appeal to the broader electorate, but to focus instead on a smaller set of issues, which may not have as wide of an appeal. Cox, for example, points out that ‘being small is best for maintaining ideological consistency’.Footnote 31 As a result of these core differences, scholars have found that smaller parties behave differently than larger parties in election campaigns and in government.Footnote 32 Following this research, which highlights the overall differences between small and large parties, we argue that larger parties will pay more attention to voters’ concerns than small parties, which is our second hypothesis.Footnote 33

Hypothesis 2: Large parties will be more responsive to voters than will small parties.

Next, we consider the responsiveness of governing parties. Although these are often larger parties, smaller parties have also been included in governing coalitions, such as the green parties in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany and Italy. While larger parties are more likely to be responsive than smaller parties, once a party is in government, it may be more constrained in its actions than opposition parties, regardless of its size. As governing parties are focused on policy making, they may be less able to compromise their policy priorities in their manifestos. Incumbent parties, moreover, have been responsible for policies that have been implemented in recent years. They have been exposed to intensive scrutiny by the media, which monitor governmental action and communicate legislative decisions to voters. As a result, voters have fairly good knowledge of the policy decisions of government parties. It is thus very difficult for a governing party to entirely change its policy priorities in an election manifesto in response to shifts in voter attention. For instance, imagine a government has largely ignored environmental policy during its four-year term. Even though voters might care a lot about environmental protection, it would not be very convincing to emphasize this issue in the election campaign since the government has not done anything about that issue while in office. A governing party may thus compromise its credibility among voters if it changes its issue priorities right before an election.Footnote 34

In contrast, opposition parties have much more flexibility to propose policies that voters favour. They are not currently in office, and past activities in government in previous legislative terms may have faded in voters’ memories. Opposition parties are not as constrained by outside forces such as economic downturns or international commitments, and can typically make policy proposals throughout the election campaign without having to refer to their past legislative decisions. For this reason, political parties that are in opposition at the time of the election can pay more attention to voters’ policy priorities in their manifestos. Moreover, they have the incentive to be more responsive to (re)gain control of government. We therefore expect governing parties to be less responsive than opposition parties to changes in voters’ issue emphasis, since they are less constrained by their own past decisions. Opposition parties can more easily adjust their policy priorities without jeopardizing their credibility, which leads us to our third hypothesis.Footnote 35

Hypothesis 3: Government parties will be less responsive to voters than will opposition parties.

Turning to a final distinction among parties, niche parties, as defined by Meguid, are those that ‘reject the traditional class-based orientation of politics’, whose policies ‘do not coincide with existing lines of political division’ and that ‘limit their issue appeals’.Footnote 36 Niche parties are, moreover, classic policy seekers, which value their policy goals over any office considerations. They often form because existing parties are not responsive to the issue priorities of part of the electorate, as discussed above regarding the formation of the green parties, and thus are focused more on the policies that led to their formation.Footnote 37 Unlike mainstream parties, niche parties may make decisions, such as choosing to stay out of government, because of policy differences or feeling constrained by the policy considerations of the dominant party, which run counter to the traditional expectation of parties as office seekers.Footnote 38 Heller, for example, found that regional parties in Spain chose to stay out of the national government in exchange for policy concessions from the governing party.Footnote 39 These parties, moreover, are largely unresponsive to the issue agendas of other parties.Footnote 40 Additionally, niche parties may be considered the archetypal ‘associative issue owners’, in that there is a spontaneous identification between issues relating to the environment or immigration, for example, and green or far-right parties, respectively, in the minds of most people.Footnote 41 For these reasons, we argue that niche parties may pay more attention to voters than other parties on the specific issues on which they focus, but may not necessarily pay any more attention to voters’ concerns on unowned issues.

It is important to note that party size and niche party status are not necessarily the same. Niche parties may be small in size (most green parties) or a major political actor (such as the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs or the Schweizerische Volkspartei). Small parties, moreover, may be niche parties, but may also be mainstream parties (such as the Swedish Kristdemokraterna).Footnote 42 Accordingly, Meguid and Adams et al. emphasize that size is not a defining characteristic of niche parties.Footnote 43 Similarly, Wagner points out that ‘while there is a likely correlation between size and niche party status due to the fact that that these parties compete in areas removed from the mainstream, this is by no means a necessary attribute of niche parties’.Footnote 44 In our dataset, the correlation between size and niche party status is only moderate (r=0.27, p<0.01). Our final hypothesis reflects both niche parties’ differences in relation to mainstream parties and their ownership of specific issues.

Hypothesis 4: Across issue areas, niche parties will be no more responsive than other parties; however, they will be more responsive to voters on their own issues.

RESEARCH DESIGN

In this section, we first discuss the measurement of the dependent variable (Party Issue Responsiveness) and then explain the data selection and the operationalization of the independent variables.

Assessing Party Issue Responsiveness across Countries

To measure the responsiveness of political parties to voters’ issue priorities, we examine the congruence of voter and party attention on different policy issues. More precisely, we compare the attention that voters pay to different policy issues in the previous election, which we denote as t −1 , with the policy issues that parties emphasize in the current election, which we denote as t 0 . To measure political parties’ issue responsiveness, we include a time lag between the issue priorities of voters and parties, assuming that political parties need time to process changes in voters’ issue salience and adjust their issue priorities, as discussed above.Footnote 45

We measure political parties’ issue attention according to the emphasis they place on different policy issues in their election manifestos. Manifestos are an ideal source for mapping parties’ issue priorities. Parties regularly draft manifestos for national elections and lay out their stance on different policy issues to signal their policy commitments to voters. They constitute a rich data source that has been used by a wide variety of scholars to measure the salience of policy issues for parties.Footnote 46 We rely on information extracted from election manifestos by the CMP,Footnote 47 which has generated the most comprehensive and widely used dataset on parties’ policy priorities by applying a manual content analysis to election manifestos. Human coders have divided election manifestos into units of analysis (so-called quasi-sentences) and have allocated these quasi-sentences to policy categories specified a priori in a coding scheme. The attention that political parties pay to policy issues is measured as the percentage of quasi-sentences devoted to a certain issue area.

Importantly, the issue areas do not reflect positions; in other words, they include both positive and negative mentions of the issue (see Table 1). Thus the multiculturalism category includes both support and opposition to multiculturalism. We combine these issue dimensions, as we are interested in measuring how salient an issue is for a party and not necessarily the position it has taken. Our dependent variable is therefore the party’s attention to an issue area in a specific election, which is measured by summing the percentage of the party’s manifesto for each issue area.

Table 1 Issue Areas and CMP Policy Categories

In order to measure the attention that voters pay to different policy issues, we rely on the so-called most important problem/issue (MIP) question, which is included in a number of different national and cross-national surveys.Footnote 48 This question asks respondents to indicate the most important problem/issue that their country is currently facing. The question is a standard tool for measuring voters’ issue priorities and has been used by a wide variety of scholars in comparative politics.Footnote 49 In order to assess party responsiveness, we measure the attention that parties pay to different policy issues in the current election, t 0 , while measuring the issue priorities of voters at t −1 , the previous national election.Footnote 50

To test whether political parties respond to voters’ issue priorities, we matched the policy categories included in the CMP database with the responses to the MIP question included in national election studies. We grouped the CMP categories and the public opinion data into thirteen common issue areas, which allows us to directly assess whether parties responded to the changes in voter attention to a common set of issue areas (see Table 1). On average, we were able to match 85 per cent of the quasi-sentences included in the manifestos with the public opinion data, while 68 per cent of the issues indicated by voters in the election surveys could be linked to one of the thirteen issue areas.Footnote 51

In order to empirically test our hypotheses, we analyse party responsiveness in eighteen European democracies.Footnote 52 We initially started with the twenty-seven member states of the European Union and checked the availability of national election studies that included the MIP question since the 1970s. For some countries, there was no election survey conducted during the study period (for example, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania and Romania), while for others, the question was significantly different from the typical open-ended MIP question and thus answers would not be comparable (for example, Belgium). For some of these eighteen countries, however, a MIP question was not asked in every parliamentary election survey (for example, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia and Spain). We thus only include the elections for which we have a comparable MIP question from the previous election survey. Our data comes from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems and various additional national election studies.Footnote 53 See the Online Appendix for a list of election studies used for the MIP data. In all, we examine the issue responsiveness of 130 parties across thirteen issue areas in sixty-three national elections from 1972–2011.

Measuring Independent Variables

To understand how party characteristics condition responsiveness, we include three variables in our models. First, we include a variable for Party Size, which is measured as the party’s vote share in the previous national election.Footnote 54 Secondly, we include a variable for Governing Party Status. A party is considered a governing party if it was in government at the time of the election under consideration. Thirdly, we code parties as Niche or mainstream parties. We use Meguid’s definition of niche party and code green, regional and far-right parties as such.Footnote 55 The data on party size was obtained from the CMP dataset and the government participation data comes from the ParlGov dataset.Footnote 56

We also include several control variables. At the party level, we include a measure for Ideological Extremeness. Arguably, more ideologically extreme parties are more policy focused and are thus less likely to respond to the electorate’s priorities, though they may be more responsive to their own voters’ priorities.Footnote 57 To measure this we include the left-right (or RILE) score of each party in the CMP dataset.

Next, we include three party-system control variables, all of which condition how responsive a party will be to voter demands. First, we include a variable that measures the Average Issue Salience of the party system in a given election. We posit that parties’ issue emphasis is not only influenced by voters’ issue priorities, but also by those of other parties. If other parties are focusing on an issue, then we would expect all parties in the system to do the same. Secondly, we control for Average District Magnitude. We argue that the larger the magnitude, the less responsive parties will be, as they do not need to appeal to as many voters to be elected. We draw these data from Golder and add the data after 2000.Footnote 58 Thirdly, we control for the distance in days between the current and the previous election. We argue that the closer the previous election is, the more responsive parties will be to voters’ issue priorities expressed through the MIP questions. Conversely, the further away the previous election is, the less responsive parties will be.Footnote 59 See Table A.1 in the Online Appendix for descriptive statistics for all variables included in the empirical analysis.

DATA ANALYSIS

In this section, we empirically test our theoretical expectations of political parties’ issue responsiveness. After briefly discussing the specification of the statistical model, we present the results of our multivariate regression analyses.

To assess the impact of the explanatory variables on parties’ issue responsiveness, we take into account the special structure of the data. Our dataset comprises information about the responsiveness of 130 parties in eighteen European countries across thirteen issue areas from 1972–2011. The observations are therefore not completely independent, as assumed by ordinary least squares (OLS) regression. To acknowledge the hierarchical structure of the data, we estimate OLS regression models with clustered robust standard errors by creating a cluster variable that takes into account that our observations are simultaneously nested into parties and issue areas. One might also argue that the results vary across countries. We have thus also estimated an OLS model that includes country fixed effects. However, the results are substantially the same and none of the country dummies has a statistically significant effect.Footnote 60 We therefore only present the most parsimonious model accounting for the clustering into parties and policy issue areas.

Our dataset is furthermore characterized by a time component, as we analyse succeeding elections in the different countries in our sample. As a result, the observations are not only clustered into parties and issue areas, but they might also be dependent over time. In order to control for potential autocorrelation induced by the time-series structure of the data, we include the lagged dependent variable.Footnote 61

Table 2 presents the results of the multivariate OLS regression model that examines parties’ responsiveness to the entire electorate. Model 1 only includes the main effects for our explanatory and control variables. Model 2 then adds interaction effects for the three party-type hypotheses relating to party size, government status, and niche party and voter issue attention at t −1 . Finally, Model 3 includes interaction effects for all explanatory and control variables. In line with Hypothesis 1, Model 1 indicates that political parties are indeed responsive to the electorate’s issue priorities, as voter issue attention at t −1 has a statistically significant effect on party issue attention at t 0 . Hence political parties adjust their issue priorities in response to voters’ policy concerns. This finding confirms previous work that parties are not only responsive with regard to the policy positions they adopt on the left-right dimension, but also pay attention to which issues voters prioritize.Footnote 62 If voter attention to a policy issue at t −1 increases by one percentage point, the attention that parties pay to this issue at t 0 on average increases by 0.05 percentage points.

Table 2 Examining Party Responsiveness to all Voters

Note: Results are from an OLS regression with clustered robust standard errors. ***p<0.01, **p<0.05, *p<0.10

Following the extant literature, we recognize that there might be a reciprocal relationship between voters and parties, as parties might not only respond to voters’ priorities (voters may also respond to parties’ issue emphasis).Footnote 63 In order to test whether a reciprocal relationship exists, we have estimated a Granger causality test and a reversed OLS regression model in which voter issue attention was predicted by lagged party issue attention. The Granger test, as well as the reversed regression model, clearly indicates that there is no empirical evidence of a reciprocal relationship. Parties respond to voters, but voters do not necessarily respond to parties.

However, we have theorized that issue responsiveness is not equal, but rather is conditioned by party characteristics. We have thus included interaction effects between voter issue attention at t −1 and party size, government and niche party status in Model 2.Footnote 64 In line with Hypothesis 2, the empirical analysis shows that party size is positively related to issue responsiveness, as the interaction effect exhibits a statistically significant positive relationship. Hence large parties are more responsive to voters than smaller parties. Similarly, the OLS regression analysis also provides some empirical support for Hypothesis 3: the interaction effect between voter issue attention at t −1 and government status is statistically significant and negative. Thus government parties are, on average, less responsive to voters than opposition parties. Since both party size and government status exhibit statistically significant effects, it is important to note that even though large parties are generally more responsive to voters than small parties, large parties are less responsive to voters if they are in government at the time of the election.Footnote 65 Finally, we find empirical support for the first part of Hypothesis 4: that niche parties will be no more responsive than other parties. As expected, the coefficients for the niche party variable in Models 1 and 2 are not significant. The empirical findings for party size, government and niche status are robust across model specifications, as the effects hold when only including interaction effects for these explanatory variables (Model 2) or including interactions for all independent variables in the model (Model 3).

To further illustrate how party responsiveness varies with party size and government status, we have computed marginal effect plots as recommended by Brambor et al.Footnote 66 Figure 1 demonstrates parties’ issue responsiveness to voters. More precisely, it shows the marginal effect of voter issue attention at t −1 on party issue attention at t 0 as the size of political parties varies. The figure clearly demonstrates that large parties are more responsive to voters’ issue priorities across all levels of party size.

Fig. 1 The effect of party size on party issue responsiveness Note: This figure is based on Model 2.

Figure 2 plots how government status affects parties’ issue responsiveness. It presents the marginal effect of voter issue attention at t −1 on party issue attention at t 0 for opposition and government parties. In line with our theoretical expectations, the figure demonstrates that government parties are less responsive to voters than opposition parties. It does, however, demonstrate that the difference in responsiveness between government and opposition parties is not statistically significant.

Fig. 2 The effect of government status on party issue responsiveness Note: This figure is based on Model 2.

In the second part of Hypothesis 4, we posited that niche parties would be more responsive to voters in the issue areas they ‘own’. Since niche parties compete primarily in policy areas that are important to them, such as green parties in the environmental issue domain, they should be largely indifferent to citizens’ policy concerns in other issue areas.Footnote 67 To assess whether niche parties are more responsive to voters in the policy areas they own, we have estimated two additional OLS regression models that test whether green parties are more responsive to voters in the environmental policy domain. We have chosen to test this hypothesis with regard to green parties and environmental policy, as this issue ownership relationship is theoretically and empirically the most distinct example of a policy area owned by a specific party type. Furthermore, it can be considered an ‘associated issue’.Footnote 68 Environmental policy is also a typical valence issue.Footnote 69 When a voter responds that the environment or pollution is the most important issue, it is clear what the voter’s position is – she would not state that the environment is the most important issue in the election if she was opposed to environmental protection or reducing air pollution, for example. We can then easily match the voters’ issue priority with the CMP codebook, which includes two policy categories that are both supportive of environmental policy and conservation (per 416 and per 501). Thus there is a clear match between the voters’ issue priorities and the content of the manifesto as measured by the CMP.

Conversely, given the nature of other issue areas that voters indicate as the most important issue in the national election surveys, it is not clear which position voters have on these issues and thus with which CMP categories and parties to match it. For example, when voters respond that Europe, European integration or European policy is most important, we cannot know if they are Europhiles or Eurosceptics, and thus cannot use this as a proxy of the Eurosceptic issue, which could be considered the owned issue of Eurosceptic parties. Moreover, many large mainstream parties may also be considered Eurosceptic, but are not the perceived owners of the issue. Thus for all of these conceptual and methodological reasons, we have chosen to look at the responsiveness of green parties to voters on the environment issue.

Table 3 presents the results of the empirical analysis. Instead of including a niche party dummy, we have controlled for green parties more specifically in the model. We have also included a dichotomous variable indicating issue responsiveness in the environmental issue area as well as two-way interactions between voter issue attention at t −1 , green parties and environmental policy, and a three-way interaction between voter issue attention at t −1 , green parties and environmental policy. Models 4 and 5 are estimated on the basis of the issue attention of the entire electorate. Models 6 and 7 are based on the issue attention of party supporters, which follows the expectation that green parties will be more responsive to their own supporters, as they are focused on constituency representation.Footnote 70 In all four models, we see that the interaction between the green party dummy variable and both voter and supporter issue attention on all issues other than the environment is not significant. This confirms our expectation that green parties, as niche parties, are no more responsive than other parties on a non-owned issue. However, when we look at how green parties respond to their supporters’ attention to the environmental issue, we see a positive and significant coefficient. The more attention supporters of green parties pay to environmental protection at t −1 , the larger the green parties’ emphasis on environmental policy at t 0 . Hence these results demonstrate that green parties, as one type of niche party, have clear issue and voter priorities. They do not adjust their policy priorities with regard to all voters, but only with regard to their specific supporters. Our findings follow those of Ezrow et al., who showed that niche parties respond to shifts in the mean position of their own voters rather than the entire electorate.Footnote 71 What is more, green parties care in particular about the issue they own and are more responsive to the policy concerns of their supporters in this particular policy domain than in other policy areas. This finding thus confirms the second part of Hypothesis 4.

Table 3 Examining Party Responsiveness in the Environmental Issue Area

Note: Results are from an OLS regression with clustered robust standard errors. ***p<0.01, **p<0.05, *p<0.10

Figure 3 presents simulated predicted values for parties’ responsiveness in the environmental policy domain to illustrate this issue-ownership relationship.Footnote 72 The black lines indicate the responsiveness of green parties to party supporter concerns regarding environmental protection, while the grey lines indicate the responsiveness of other parties to their party supporters on the environmental issue. At the bottom of the plot, the markers indicate the distribution of issue attention among party supporters. Figure 3 clearly shows that green parties are considerably more responsive to the attention that party supporters pay to environmental protection than other parties. While the attention that green parties give to environmental protection at t 0 increases with the attention their supporters pay to environmental policy at t −1 , the issue attention of other parties remains largely unaffected by their supporters’ concerns in this policy area. When lagged party supporter issue attention is at its mean (where 5.31 per cent of party supporters responded that the environment was the most important issue), green parties’ attention to the environment issue is 8.94 compared to 6.26 for other parties,Footnote 73 holding all other variables at their mean (continuous variables) and median (categorical variables) values. The confidence intervals for the green parties’ responsiveness is fairly large, given the small number of observations in our dataset (N=312). However, despite the large confidence intervals of green party responsiveness, they hardly overlap with the responsiveness of other parties, which further corroborates the important issue-ownership relationship between green parties and environmental policy.

Fig. 3 Parties’ responsiveness to supporters in the environmental issue area Note: This figure is based on Model 6.

Finally, with regard to the control variables included in the empirical analysis, the OLS regression models presented in Tables 2 and 3 only indicate the following statistically significant relationships. First, right-wing parties are, on average, more responsive to voters and party supporters than left-wing parties, as all OLS models indicate a statistically significant positive effect for the parties’ policy position on the left-right dimension. Secondly, parties respond not only to voters, but also to the policy priorities of other political parties. The larger the average attention that parties pay to policy issues at t −1 , the larger the attention that parties pay to these policy issues at t 0 (see Model 1). However, the regressions also indicate a negative interaction effect between average party issue salience and voter attention. Hence, the larger the average attention that parties and voters paid to a policy issue at t −1 , the smaller the responsiveness of parties to that policy issue at t 0 (see Model 3). Thirdly, the analysis demonstrates a systematic effect of average district magnitude. The larger the average district magnitude, the lower the responsiveness of parties to voters (see Model 3). This follows our expectation that with larger district magnitudes, parties can be less responsive to voters’ issue priorities and choose to focus on issues that they prioritize, and still gain representation.

CONCLUSION

How do party characteristics influence responsiveness to voters’ issue priorities? Building on previous research, which has demonstrated that parties respond to shifts in voters’ ideological positions and that governments respond to the issue priorities of voters, we find that parties’ responsiveness to voters’ issue priorities is conditional on several characteristics, namely party size and party type.Footnote 74 We show that although larger parties are more responsive to the issues voters prioritize, governing parties are less responsive, which highlights the constraints that parties are under when they participate in government. We also demonstrate that niche parties are no more responsive than other parties in general; however, when we examine green party responsiveness on its own issue, we find that they are more responsive than other parties to their supporters.

Interestingly, we find no difference in non-niche party responsiveness to the electorate in general compared to party supporters. Thus large parties are still more responsive compared to small parties, even when looking only at party supporters (see Online Appendix Table A.2). Green parties, as a type of niche party, however, are more responsive to their own voters on their own issues, thus further highlighting their distinctiveness.Footnote 75

Our findings have important implications for understanding political representation and political competition. First, if larger parties are more responsive than smaller parties, voters will continually be more likely to vote for them, thus perpetuating their larger party status and reducing smaller party representation. In addition, as party size often determines the resources that parties receive, smaller parties are more likely to remain small.Footnote 76 Secondly, although we might expect smaller parties to be more responsive to their own voters because they have chosen to be more ideologically focused, this is not generally the case.Footnote 77 We do, however, find niche parties to be more responsive to their own voters on their own issues, which suggests that issue focus, as well as size, distinguishes parties. Thirdly, although one might argue that governing parties are more responsive to voters in order to remain in office, we find that this expectation does not hold. Our analysis shows that whereas governing parties may have been more responsive in the past, enabling them to join the government, after they join they have become too constrained and less responsive to voters. As it is well known that government parties often lose support over time, our findings highlight an important piece of the puzzle. Since being in government places specific constraints on governmental parties, they are less able to flexibly adjust their issue priorities to the policy concerns of citizens.

This study offers a crucial next step toward understanding the linkage between voters and parties, and how it is conditioned by party characteristics. However, there are still important questions that remain unanswered – are parties more likely to respond to voters when they share their policy preferences? And, moreover, do parties strategically emphasize (or de-emphasize) policy issues on which the electorate is united (divided)? Finally, how do issues become salient for voters and parties? Future research should thus explore the interaction between policy position and issue salience, and the influence of the media and exogenous policy problems and events on issue salience during election campaigns to more fully understand these relationships.

Footnotes

*

University of Bamberg (email: heike.kluever@uni-bamberg.de); University of North Texas (email: spoon@unt.edu). The order of the authors’ names reflects the principle of rotation. Both authors have contributed equally to all work. We thank Shaun Bevan, Zachary Greene, Rob Johns, Thomas Meyer, Jan Rovny and the three anonymous reviewers for valuable comments and suggestions. All errors remain our own. Online appendices and data replication sets are available at http://dx.doi.org/doi: 10.1017/S0007123414000313.

2 See Dalton and Wattenberg Reference Dalton and Wattenberg2000.

3 Stimson, Mackuen, and Erikson Reference Stimson, Mackuen and Erikson1995.

4 Kitschelt Reference Kitschelt1988a, 209.

5 See e.g., Markovits and Gorski Reference Markovits and Gorski1993.

9 See e.g., Bevan and Jennings Reference Bevan and Jennings2014; Chaqués Bonafont and Palau Reference Chaqués Bonafont and Palau2011; Hobolt and Klemmensen Reference Hobolt and Klemmensen2008; Jennings and John Reference Jennings and John2009; Jones and Baumgartner Reference Jones and Baumgartner2004; Jones, Larsen-Price, and Wilkerson Reference Jones, Larsen-Price and Wilkerson2009.

10 Wagner and Meyer Reference Wagner and Meyer2014.

11 E.g., Bélanger and Meguid Reference Bélanger and Meguid2008; Green and Hobolt Reference Green and Hobolt2008; Green and Jennings Reference Green and Jennings2012; van der Brug Reference van der Brug2004.

13 Spoon and Klüver Reference Spoon and Klüver2014.

14 Spoon and Klüver Reference Spoon and Klüver2014.

17 De Swaan 1973.

18 Strøm and Müller Reference Strøm and Müller1999.

19 See e.g., Strøm Reference Strøm1990; Strøm and Müller Reference Strøm and Müller1999.

20 See e.g., Kollman, Miller, and Page Reference Kollman, Miller and Page1992; Robertson Reference Robertson1976.

23 Adams and Somer-Topcu Reference Adams and Somer-Topcu2009.

24 For a similar logic, see Meguid Reference Meguid2008; van Spanje Reference van Spanje2010.

25 Spoon, Hobolt, and de Vries Reference Spoon, Hobolt and de Vries2014.

27 Bale and Bergman Reference Bale and Bergman2006.

29 Kirchheimer Reference Kirchheimer1966.

30 Harmel and Janda Reference Harmel and Janda1994; Przeworski and Sprague Reference Przeworski and Sprague1986.

31 Cox Reference Cox1997, 171.

32 E.g. Bolleyer Reference Bolleyer2007; West and Spoon Reference West and Spoon2013.

33 As one could argue that the effect of party size may be curvilinear, as parties might become less responsive past a certain size, we have included the squared size of party as a robustness check. See footnote 54.

34 For a similar argument, see Nanou and Dorussen Reference Nanou and Dorussen2013.

35 Governing parties’ inability to change their policy priorities may also be explained by theories of issue ownership and competency. Because they were elected on issues that they own (and are perceived by voters to be competent in these areas), governing parties are less likely to change their priorities right before an election. Greene furthermore distinguishes between governing and opposition parties’ likelihood of expanding the issues on which they focus in their manifestos. He finds that opposition parties increase their issue diversity as a way of expanding their appeal to voters. See Budge and Farlie Reference Budge and Farlie1983; Green and Jennings Reference Green and Jennings2012; Greene ND; Petrocik Reference Petrocik1996.

36 Meguid Reference Meguid2005, 347–8. There are other definitions of niche parties in the literature. Wagner (Reference Wagner2012), for example, has proposed that niche parties are best defined as those that compete primarily on a small number of non-economic issues.

37 Kitschelt Reference Kitschelt1988a.

41 See Spoon, Hobolt, and de Vries Reference Spoon, Hobolt and de Vries2014; Walgrave, Lefevere, and Tresch Reference Walgrave, Lefevere and Tresch2012.

42 See Spoon Reference Spoon2011.

44 Wagner Reference Wagner2012, 851.

45 In addition to the reasoning discussed above, modeling party responsiveness by explaining party issue attention at t 0 with voter issue attention at t −1 also better reflects the structure of our data than a concurrent analysis of party and voter issue attention at t 0. Election manifestos are typically drafted long before the election takes place, while election studies, on the basis of which we measure voter issue attention, are often conducted after the election.

48 We acknowledge that ‘most important issue’ and ‘most important problem’ are not necessarily the same question, and that MIP questions do not always accurately represent the public’s preferences. However, as these are the best cross-national questions available to gauge citizens’ policy priorities, we use both most important issue and most important problem questions in order to have as much of a cross-national time series as possible. See Jennings and John Reference Jennings and John2009, 844; Jennings and Wlezien Reference Jennings and Wlezien2012. For a discussion of how there is little difference between the two questions, see Wlezien (Reference Wlezien2005) and Jennings and Wlezien (Reference Jennings and Wlezien2011).

49 E.g., Chaqués Bonafont and Palau Reference Chaqués Bonafont and Palau2011; Hobolt and Klemmensen Reference Hobolt and Klemmensen2008; Jennings and John Reference Jennings and John2009.

50 As there is a long-standing debate in comparative party research about whether parties respond to the entire electorate or only to their supporters or specific groups, we also ran our models looking at the issue attention of the parties’ supporters (see Online Appendix Table A.2). However, the results of this analysis do not differ from that of the analysis based on the entire electorate, which is consistent with Green’s findings in the UK. This result may be because the majority of the parties in our analysis are generally vote seeking, and will respond equally to the electorate and to their own supporters. See Adams et al. Reference Adams, Clark, Ezrow and Glasgow2006; Dalton Reference Dalton1985; Downs Reference Downs1957; Ezrow et al. Reference Ezrow, de Vries, Steenbergen and Edwards2011; Green Reference Green2011; Hobolt and Klemmensen Reference Hobolt and Klemmensen2008; Miller and Schofield Reference Miller and Schofield2003.

51 We have chosen to drop the issues that voters mention that we could not link to one of the issue areas, as we are interested in understanding how responsive parties are to voters on the specific issues they mention. In future research, it would be interesting to examine these unmatched issues and their implications for representation.

52 The countries included in our analysis are Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

53 We only use MIP data from national election studies and do not rely on polling data to generate a comparable dataset across countries. All the national election studies we include in our dataset use open-ended questions.

54 One may argue that the effect of party size may in fact be curvilinear, as parties might become steadily less responsive past a certain size. As a robustness check, we included not only party size but also the squared size of a party in the empirical analysis. While there is indeed a curvilinear effect as the main term is positive and the squared term is negative, the size of the squared term is extremely small, so that the overall effect of party size is essentially linear. Thus the models we present do not include the squared term.

59 We have re-run our analysis with several other control variables, including the party’s vote share change from the last election to the current election and voter turnout. The overall results do not change, and these variables are not significant.

60 One could potentially also estimate a multilevel model with parties nested into countries. However, as at least thirty second-level units are required to estimate a multilevel analysis, and since we only have eighteen countries, we chose to run an OLS model with clustered robust standard errors. In order to test the robustness of the findings, we have, however, also estimated the multilevel specification and the results are nearly identical. See Maas and Hox Reference Maas and Hox2004.

64 As the responsiveness of political parties might also vary across different party families, we also estimated an OLS model with fixed effects for party families. The effects of our main explanatory variables remain constant, while none of the party family dummies is significant.

65 Other factors, such as the state of the economy, may influence government responsiveness to voter issue attention. These should be explored in future research.

66 Brambor, Clark, and Golder Reference Brambor, Clark and Golder2006.

68 Meguid Reference Meguid2005; Spoon and Klüver Reference Spoon and Klüver2014; Walgrave, Lefevere, and Tresch Reference Walgrave, Lefevere and Tresch2012. Both the CMP and expert survey data confirm that green parties are the clear owners of the environmental issue. First, the CMP data show that during the 1980–2010 period, the environment issue represents an average of 22 per cent of the green parties’ manifestos, which is nearly double that of the next-closest party family. Secondly, expert surveys demonstrate that the environmental issue is much more salient for green parties than for any other parties in their respective party systems. The mean salience of the environmental issue for green parties is 18.6 (out of 20) and 9.2 (out of 10) on the Benoit and Laver and Bakker et al. expert surveys, respectively. For both the CMP and expert surveys, the difference in the mean salience of the environmental issue for green parties compared to all other parties in the system is statistically significant. See Benoit and Laver Reference Benoit and Laver2006; Bakker et al. Reference Bakker, De Vries, Edwards, Hooghe, Jolly, Marks, Polk, Rovny, Steenbergen and Vachudova2012.

72 King, Tomz, and Wittenberg Reference King, Tomz and Wittenberg2000.

73 These numbers represent the percentage of the parties’ manifesto that focuses on the environment issue area.

76 Katz and Mair Reference Katz and Mair1995.

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Figure 0

Table 1 Issue Areas and CMP Policy Categories

Figure 1

Table 2 Examining Party Responsiveness to all Voters

Figure 2

Fig. 1 The effect of party size on party issue responsiveness Note: This figure is based on Model 2.

Figure 3

Fig. 2 The effect of government status on party issue responsiveness Note: This figure is based on Model 2.

Figure 4

Table 3 Examining Party Responsiveness in the Environmental Issue Area

Figure 5

Fig. 3 Parties’ responsiveness to supporters in the environmental issue area Note: This figure is based on Model 6.

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