Political Behavior

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 857–882 | Cite as

The Winner Takes It All: Revisiting the Effect of Direct Democracy on Citizens’ Political Support

  • Sofie MarienEmail author
  • Anna Kern
Original Paper


Despite the strong theoretical expectations about the beneficial effect of direct democratic instruments on citizens’ political support, the empirical evidence is scarce and inconsistent. We add to this literature by studying the effect of the use of a direct democratic process on citizens’ political support and its underlying causal mechanism. Using a unique research design that combines a strong test of causality with a high level of ecological validity, we surveyed inhabitants of a Belgian neighborhood that held a local referendum and a comparison group (i.e. inhabitants of a comparable neighborhood without referendum) before and after the referendum (n = 1049). Using difference-in-differences analysis and first difference regression analysis, we show that in line with our expectations the increase in political support following the referendum is not driven by involvement or procedural fairness perceptions but by an increase in support levels among the winners of the decision. Moreover, despite the contested nature of the issue, losers’ level of political support did not decrease significantly after the result of the referendum was announced.


Direct democracy Democratic innovations Referendum Democratic legitimacy Political trust Losers’ consent 



The study was funded by a BELSPO Interuniversity Attraction Pole Grant (PARTIREP II) and a FWO Project Grant (G075615N). A large number of colleagues provided valuable comments during various phases of this project. The scholarship of Peter Esaiasson inspired this project significantly. We also want to acknowledge the three anonymous reviewers, Marc Hooghe, Yue Hou, Kristof Jacobs, Arndt Leininger, Cherie Maestas, Peter Miller, Diana Mutz and Min Reuchamps for their creative and valuable suggestions. We wish to thank Greet Louw for research assistance. Earlier versions were presented in 2016 at the ECPR General Conference, WAPOR-RECSM Political Trust Conference, the annual meetings of MPSA, APSA and the Dutch and Belgian Political Science Association. We wish to thank all participants for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Leuven, Centre for Political Science ResearchLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.University of Amsterdam, Department of Political ScienceAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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