Electoral Competitiveness and Issue Voting


This article suggests that voters rely more strongly on “substantial” criteria, such as issues and ideology, when elections are competitive. In such contexts, voters should attach more importance to their own choice and rely less on “heuristics.” Three aspects of election competitiveness are considered: the fragmentation and polarization of the party system and the proportionality of the electoral system. Elections are more competitive when there are many parties in competition, when they differ strongly from one another in ideological terms, and when the threshold of representation is lower. These hypotheses are tested with data from the 2007 Swiss federal elections. The electoral districts differ markedly from one another as far as electoral competitiveness is concerned while being similar in many other respects. The results show that competitiveness strengthens issue voting and reduces the impact of party identification.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The dataset is available from the Swiss Foundation for Research in Social Sciences, at http://nesstar.sidos.ch. The 2007 Swiss election study is based on a telephone survey conducted from 22 October to 5 November 2007, following the federal elections of 21 October. Respondents were selected using a two-stage sampling design. First, households were selected using a random sample from the telephone register. Second, one person by household was randomly chosen to be interviewed. 4392 interviews were realized, corresponding to a response rate of 70.6% (number of completed interviews/number of valid households). This sample is divided into two parts. 2005 persons are from a national representative sample. The remaining 2387 respondents are from additional samples drawn in selected cantons. In small cantons, where less than 100 respondents were expected in the national representative sample, an additional sample was drawn to reach an expected number of 100 interviews. In three larger cantons (Geneva, Ticino, Zurich), an additional sample was drawn in order to reach an expected number of 600 interviews. The number of interviews realized by canton is as follows: Zurich: 649, Geneva: 580, Ticino: 519, Bern: 294, Vaud: 160, Aargau: 148, other cantons: 91–126.

  2. 2.

    No election took place in the canton of Nidwalden, since there was only one candidate for the available seat (a so-called “tacit” election). Three other cantons (Uri, Appenzell Outer Rhodes, and Appenzell Inner Rhodes) were excluded because their level of party system polarization was difficult to determine. In these cantons, a single major party was competing against independents or candidates from very small parties. The issue positions of the latter were not measured in the election study and to ignore them altogether would have meant assuming a total absence of polarization, which makes little sense.

  3. 3.

    van der Eijk et al. (2006) show that 93% of voters in the 1994 Dutch election study voted for the party for which their utility was highest. I find the same percentage for the respondents of the 2007 Swiss election study.

  4. 4.

    This implies that the observations within a respondent are probably not independent from one another. Accordingly, the standard errors in the individual-level models were estimated by allowing for clustered observations, with the groups corresponding to the respondents.

  5. 5.

    Descriptive statistics for all variables can be found in Tables A1 and A2 of an online appendix available at http://www.romain-lachat.ch/publications.html. This online appendix also indicates the wording of the questions used in this study.

  6. 6.

    On the first of these issues, respondents were asked if they were for higher or lower taxes on high incomes. For the European issue, they were asked whether or not they supported Swiss EU membership. The detailed question wording is available in the online appendix.

  7. 7.

    A total of 94% of respondents mentioned a most important problem. 58% of these indicated a (single) party most capable of solving it.

  8. 8.

    As emphasized by Dalton (2008), a measure of polarization should reflect both the size and position of parties. The index used here meets these conditions.

  9. 9.

    The vote shares of the five parties considered for the analysis are rescaled to sum to 1.

  10. 10.

    The coding of these two pairs of dummy variables is illustrated in Table A3 in the online appendix.

  11. 11.

    The analysis includes all respondent × party combinations with valid voting propensities and perceived party positions. This results in the exclusion of 651 respondents.

  12. 12.

    The procedure recommended by Lewis and Linzer can be estimated using the edvreg program for Stata, available at http://svn.cluelessresearch.com/twostep/trunk/edvreg.ado.

  13. 13.

    Cf. Table A4 in the online appendix.

  14. 14.

    Table A4 also shows that fragmented party systems are more polarized, but only on the taxation issue.

  15. 15.

    To be more confident that the results are robust, I have also estimated the impact of context-level variables with bivariate regressions, including only one indicator of electoral competitiveness at a time.

  16. 16.

    The value of 0.28 is obtained by adding the absolute values of the two party competence dummies.

  17. 17.

    The value of 0.36 is equal to the sum of the absolute values of the dummies Party identification, own party and Party identification, other party.

  18. 18.

    The predicted results presented in Fig. 1 were calculated by setting the other context-level variables to their average value.

  19. 19.

    See Table A5 in the online appendix. Such bivariate models were estimated for all dependent and independent variables. With the exception just mentioned, they always confirm the conclusions based on the results of Table 3.

  20. 20.

    The significant effect of fragmentation on the dummy PID, other party (Table 3, Model 1) points only to a difference in voting probabilities between non-identifiers’ and identifiers’ evaluations of their non-preferred parties. The effect of party identification, however, does not significantly vary with fragmentation. Similarly, electoral system proportionality has no effect on single-issue voting in Model 2, that is, on the difference between the dummies Most competent party and Other party most competent.

  21. 21.

    The corresponding results are presented in the online appendix (Table A6).


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This research was financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant PZ_121606). Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2009 ECPR General Conference, at the 2010 Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association and the 2010 Meeting of the American Political Science Association. I thank the Editors of this journal and three anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments. All remaining errors remain my own.

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Correspondence to Romain Lachat.

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Lachat, R. Electoral Competitiveness and Issue Voting. Polit Behav 33, 645–663 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-010-9151-8

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  • Issue voting
  • Party identification
  • Polarization
  • Fragmentation
  • Electoral system