Pass the Buck If You Can: How Partisan Competition Triggers Attribution Bias in Multilevel Democracies

Abstract

Voters’ ability to hold politicians accountable has been shown to be limited in systems of multilevel government. The existence of multiple tiers of government blurs the lines of responsibility, making it more difficult for voters to assign credit or blame for policy performance. However, much less is known about how the vertical division of responsibility affects citizens’ propensity to rationalize responsibility attributions on the basis of group attachment. While these two processes have similar observable implications, they imply markedly different micro-mechanisms. Using experimental and observational data, this paper examines how the partisan division of power moderates the impact of voters’ partisanship and feelings of territorial attachment on attributions of responsibility for the regional economy. Our analyses show that partisan-based attribution bias varies systematically with the partisan context, such that it only emerges in regions where a party other than the national incumbent controls the regional government. We also find that responsibility judgments are rationalized on the basis of territorial identities only when a regional nationalist party is in control of the regional government. Our results contribute to explaining the contextual variations in the strength of regional economic voting and more generally to understanding one of the mechanisms through which low clarity of responsibility reduces government accountability.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Data and replication code for the analyses presented in this paper are available at the Political Behavior Dataverse (doi:10.7910/DVN/XZJP2J).

  2. 2.

    For ease of presentation, we henceforth use the unqualified term “nationalist” to refer only to regional nationalist parties, i.e. region-specific parties that claim nationhood for a region and aim to empower it by promoting self-government or independence. See Hepburn (2009) for a discussion of the different labels used to classify this party family in the literature.

  3. 3.

    The experiment was embedded in a wave of an online panel survey of the Spanish population. Due to Internet use sharply decreasing with age, the original sample is restricted to young and middle aged adults (respondents’ age ranges between 18 and 48 years in our sample). Quotas were applied for sex, age, education, and region, thus enabling to examine how different regional partisan contexts moderate the degree of bias in responsibility judgements. Respondents from the Canary Islands and Navarre are excluded from the analysis as the questionnaire did not include a measure of proximity to these regions’ incumbents (Coalición Canaria and Unión del Pueblo Navarro, respectively).

  4. 4.

    The data were collected by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (study no. 2734). Regional sample sizes range between 1490 and 2400.

  5. 5.

    We replicated the analysis using respondents’ proximity to the national incumbent instead of their proximity to the regional incumbent. The results, presented in section A of the Supplemental Appendix, show a pattern similar to that found in the present analysis, such that closeness to the PP consistently moderates the adjustment of responsibility attributions to the valence of information in regions with an out-party incumbent, but not in regions with an in-party incumbent.

  6. 6.

    These results are robust to alternative specifications of the proximity and identity variables, as shown in section B of the Supplemental Appendix.

  7. 7.

    Education is measured using a 4-level variable: Primary or less, lower secondary, higher secondary, university. Political knowledge is an additive index based on six factual items.

  8. 8.

    In order to subject our hypotheses to a more formal test and to allow a clearer comparison with the analysis of the experiment, we also estimated a series of general models pooling all regions together and including interactions between perceptions of the economy, government support/territorial identity, and dummy variables identifying regions with out-party/nationalist incumbents. The estimates, shown in section D of the Supplemental Appendix, consistently indicate that the three-way interactions are statistically significant (p < 0.01) and the effects are in the expected direction, suggesting that attribution bias is dependent on the region’s partisan context.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Dani Marinova for her guidance in preparing an earlier version of the manuscript. We are also very grateful to three anonymous reviewers, whose constructive comments greatly helped to clarify and improve the paper. This research was supported by the project “Stability and Change in Political Attitudes,” funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (CSO2010-18534), and by a Ramón y Cajal grant to Guillem Rico (RYC-2012-09861).

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Correspondence to Guillem Rico.

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Rico, G., Liñeira, R. Pass the Buck If You Can: How Partisan Competition Triggers Attribution Bias in Multilevel Democracies. Polit Behav 40, 175–196 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-017-9409-5

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Keywords

  • Motivated reasoning
  • Clarity of responsibility
  • Partisanship
  • Territorial identity
  • Spain