Policy Responsiveness and Electoral Incentives: A (Re)assessment

  • Luca BernardiEmail author
Original Paper


Competitive democratic theory predicts that electoral factors enhance policy makers' responsiveness to public opinion. Yet findings on the effects of electoral incentives on policy responsiveness point in different directions and comparative research remains limited, lacking of a systematic evaluation. We draw on previous work, expand the range of electoral incentives, and re-assess their role in influencing policy responsiveness by using spending preferences. We provide extensive tests of an Electoral Vulnerability Hypothesis and an Electoral Proximity Hypothesis. Contra competitive democratic theory, time-series analysis from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States in twenty policy domains and nine different indicators for electoral incentives finds limited support for these hypotheses. Our findings have implications for democracy and question the importance of electoral pressures in explaining policy responsiveness.


Policy responsiveness Electoral pressures Spending Public preferences 



Several people provided helpful comments on this research and on older versions of this paper. Among others, I wish to thank Jim Adams, Shaun Bevan, Daniel Bischof, Mark Franklin, Sara Hobolt, Will Jennings, Laura Morales, Stuart Soroka, Rick Whitaker, and Chris Wlezien. Different versions of this paper were presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions 2013, ECPR General Conference 2013 and MPSA 2015, and I am grateful for the feedback received. Lastly, I wish to thank the editor and the two anonymous reviewers for helping me improve the final version of this research.


The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme through a Starting Grant (FP7/2007-2013 Grant Agreement 284277) to the project “Democratic Responsiveness in Comparative Perspective: How Do Democratic Governments Respond to Different Expressions of Public Opinion? (ResponsiveGov)” ( led by Prof Laura Morales.

Supplementary material

11109_2018_9490_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1.4 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 1424 kb)


  1. Abou-Chadi, T., & Orlowski, M. (2016). Moderate as necessary: The role of electoral competitiveness and party size in explaining parties’ policy shifts. The Journal of Politics, 78(3), 868–881.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Achen, C. H. (2000). Why lagged dependent variables can suppress the explanatory power of other independent variables. Paper Prepared for the Annual Meeting of the Political Methodology Section of the American Political Science Association, UCLA, July 20–22.Google Scholar
  3. Adler, S. E., & Wilkerson, J. D. (2012). Congress and the politics of problem solving. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. André, A., Depaw, S., & Martin, S. (2014). Electoral systems and legislators’ constituency effort: The mediating effect of electoral vulnerability. Comparative Political Studies., 48, 464–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bartolini, S. (1999). Collusion, competition and democracy: Part I. Journal of Theoretical Politics, 11(4), 435–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bartolini, S. (2000). Collusion, competition and democracy: Part II. Journal of Theoretical Politics, 12(1), 33–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Beck, N., & Katz, J. N. (1995). What to do (and not to do) with time-series cross-section data. The American Political Science Review, 89(3), 634–647.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bernardi, L. (2018). From popularity to vulnerability: An application to dynamic representation in coalition governments. Party Politics. Scholar
  9. Bernardi, L., & Adams, J. (2017). Does government support respond to governments’ social welfare rhetoric or their spending? An analysis of government support in Britain, Spain and the United States. British Journal of Political Science. Scholar
  10. Bevan, S., & Jennings, W. (2014). Representation, agendas and institutions. European Journal of Political Research, 53(1), 37–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bischof, D. (2018). Ideological congruence between party rhetoric and policy-making. West European Politics, 41(2), 310–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Blais, A., & Lago, I. (2009). A general measure of district competitiveness. Electoral Studies, 28(1), 94–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bonafont, L. C., & Palau, A. M. (2011). Assessing the responsiveness of Spanish policymakers to the priorities of their citizens. West European Politics, 34(4), 706–730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Breunig, C. (2006). The more things change, the more things stay the same: A comparative analysis of budget punctuations. Journal of European Public Policy, 13(7), 1065–1081.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Burstein, P. (1998). Bringing the public back in: Should sociologists consider the impact of public opinion on public policy? Social Forces, 77(1), 27–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Burstein, P. (2003). The impact of public opinion on public policy: A review and an agenda. Political Research Quarterly, 56(1), 29–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Canes-Wrone, B. (2004). The public presidency, personal approval ratings, and policy making. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 34(3), 477–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Canes-Wrone, B., & Park, J.-K. (2012). Electoral business cycles in OECD countries. American Political Science Review, 106(1), 103–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Canes-Wrone, B., & Shotts, K. W. (2004). The conditional nature of presidential responsiveness to public opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 48(4), 690–706.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cohen, J. E. (1995). Presidential rhetoric and the public agenda. American Journal of Political Science, 39(1), 87–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Cohen, J. E. (1997). Presidential responsiveness and public policy-making. The public and the policies that Presidents choose. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  22. Coleman, J. J. (1999). Unified government, divided government, and party responsiveness. The American Political Science Review, 93(4), 821–835.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Dahl, R. A. (1971). Polyarchy: Participation and opposition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
  25. Easton, D. (1965). A framework for political analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  26. Elkins, D. J. (1974). The measurement of party competition. The American Political Science Review, 68(2), 682–700.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Endersby, J. W., Galatas, S. E., & Rackaway, C. B. (2002). Closeness Counts in Canada: Voter participation in the 1993 and 1997 Federal Elections. The Journal of Politics, 64(2), 610–631.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Epp, D. A., Lovett, J., & Baumgartner, F. R. (2014). Partisan priorities and public budgeting. Political Research Quarterly, 67, 864–878.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Erikson, R. S., Mackuen, M. B., & Stimson, J. A. (2002). The macro polity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Fagan, E. J., Jones, B. D., & Wlezien, C. (2017). Representative systems and policy punctuations. Journal of European Public Policy, 24(6), 809–831.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Fenno, R. F., Jr. (1977). U.S. house members in their constituencies: An exploration. The American Political Science Review, 71(3), 883–917.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ferejohn, J. A. (1977). On the decline of competition in congressional elections. The American Political Science Review, 71(1), 166–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Fortunato, D., & Stevenson, R. T. (2013). Perceptions of Partisan ideologies: The effect of coalition participation. American Journal of Political Science, 57(2), 459–477.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Franzese, R. J. (2002). Electoral and Partisan cycles in economic policies and outcomes. Annual Review of Political Science, 5(1), 369–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Friedrich, C. J. (1963). Man and his government. New York: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  36. Garrett, G., & Mitchell, D. (2001). Globalization, government spending and taxation in the OECD. European Journal of Political Research, 39(2), 145–177.Google Scholar
  37. Green, J., & Jennings, W. (2012). Valence as macro-competence: An analysis of mood in party competence evaluations in Great Britain. British Journal of Political Science, 42(2), 311–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Green, J., & Jennings, W. (2017). Party reputations and policy priorities: How issue ownership shapes executive and legislative agendas. British Journal of Political Science. Scholar
  39. Grofman, B., & Selb, P. (2009). A fully general index of political competition. Electoral Studies, 28(2), 291–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hakhverdian, A. (2010). Political representation and its mechanisms: A dynamic left-right approach for the United Kingdom, 1976–2006. British Journal of Political Science, 40, 835–856.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hakhverdian, A. (2012). The causal flow between public opinion and policy: Government responsiveness, leadership, or counter movement? West European Politics, 35(6), 1386–1406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Hobolt, S. B., & Klemmensen, R. (2005). Responsive government? Public opinion and government policy preferences in Britain and Denmark. Political Studies, 53(2), 379–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Hobolt, S. B., & Klemmensen, R. (2008). Government responsiveness and political competition in comparative perspective. Comparative Political Studies, 41(3), 309–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Immergut, E. M., & Abou-Chadi, T. (2014). How electoral vulnerability affects pension politics: Introducing a concept, measure and empirical application. European Journal of Political Research, 53(2), 269–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Jacobs, L. R., & Shapiro, R. Y. (2000). Politicians Don’t Pander. Political manipulation and the loss of democratic responsiveness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  46. Jennings, W. (2013). Error-correction as a concept and as a method: Time series analysis of policy-opinion responsiveness. In M. Bruter & M. Lodge (Eds.), Political science research methods in action (pp. 203–228). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Jennings, W., & John, P. (2009). The dynamics of political attention: Public opinion and the queen’s speech in the United Kingdom. American Journal of Political Science, 53(4), 838–854.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Jennings, W., & Wlezien, C. (2015). Preferences, problems and representation. Political Science Research and Methods., 3, 659–681.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Jennings, W., & Wlezien, C. (2016). The timeline of elections: A comparative perspective. American Journal of Political Science, 60(1), 219–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. John, P., Bevan, S., & Jennings, W. (2011). The policy-opinion link and institutional change: The legislative agenda of the UK and Scottish Parliaments. Journal of European Public Policy, 18(7), 1052–1068.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Jones, B. D., & Baumgartner, F. R. (2004). Representation and agenda setting. The Policy Studies Journal, 32(1), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Jones, B. D., & Baumgartner, F. R. (2005). The politics of attention: How government prioritizes problems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  53. Jones, B. D., et al. (2009). A general empirical law of public budgets: A comparative analysis. American Journal of Political Science, 53(4), 855–873.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Kayser, M. A., & Lindstädt, R. (2015). A cross-national measure of electoral competitiveness. Political Analysis, 23, 242–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Kroh, M., van der Brug, W., & van der Eijk, C. (2007). Prospects for electoral change. In W. van der Brug & C. van der Eijk (Eds.), European elections and domestic politics. Lessons from the past and scenarios for the future (pp. 209–225). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.Google Scholar
  56. Lau, R., & Redlawski, D. (2001). Advantages and disadvantages of cognitive heuristics in political decision making. American Journal of Political Science, 45, 951–971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Lax, J. R., & Phillips, J. H. (2009). Gay rights in the states: Public opinion and policy responsiveness. American Political Science Review, 103(3), 367–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Lax, J. R., & Phillips, J. H. (2012). The democratic deficit in the States. American Journal of Political Science, 56(1), 148–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Lijphart, A. (1999). Patterns of Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Lindeboom, G.-J. (2012). Public priorities in government’s hands: Corresponding policy agendas in the Netherlands? Acta Politica, 47(4), 443–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Lipsmeyer, C. S., Philips, A. Q., & Whitten, G. D. (2017). The effects of immigration and integration on European budgetary trade-offs. Journal of European Public Policy, 24(6), 912–930.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Loftis, M. W., & Mortensen, P. B. (2017). A new approach to the study of partisan effects on social policy. Journal of European Public Policy, 24(6), 890–911.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Lühiste, M., Morales, L., Bernardi, L., Bischof, D., Sabaté, O., & Visconti, F. (2017). “ResponsiveGov’s codebook and appendices.” Harvard Dataverse, V1, UNF:6:wlfV9HEyxkYtEGXMcITAdQ==
  64. Lupia, A., & McCubbins, M. (1998). The democratic dilemma: Can citizens learn what they need to know?. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Mair, P. (2013). Ruling the void: The hollowing of western democracy. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  66. Manin, B., Przeworski, A., & Stokes, S. C. (1999). Elections and representation. In A. Przeworski, S. C. Stokes, & B. Manin (Eds.), Democracy, accountability, and representation (pp. 29–54). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Manza, J., & Cook, F. L. (2002). The impact of public opinion on public policy: The state of the debate. In J. Manza, F. L. Cook, & B. I. Page (Eds.), Navigating public opinion: Polls, policy and the future of American democracy (pp. 17–32). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  68. Martin, L. W., & Stevenson, R. T. (2001). Government formation in parliamentary democracies. American Journal of Political Science, 45(1), 33–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Mayhew, D. R. (1974). Congress: The electoral connection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  70. McGann, A. J., & Latner, M. (2013). The calculus of consensus democracy: Rethinking patterns of democracy without veto players. Comparative Political Studies, 46(7), 823–850.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Meltz, D. B. (1973). An index of the measurement of interparty competition. Behavioral Science, 18(1), 60–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1963). Constituency influence in congress. The American Political Science Review, 57(1), 45–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Nordhaus, W. P. (1975). The political business cycle. Review of Economic Studies, 42(2), 169–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Page, B. I., & Jacobs, L. R. (2009). Class war? What American really think about economic inequality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Page, B. I., & Shapiro, R. Y. (1983). Effects of public opinion on policy. The American Political Science Review, 77(1), 175–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Patterson, S. C., & Caldeira, G. A. (1984). The etiology of partisan competition. The American Political Science Review, 78(3), 691–707.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Persson, T., & Tabellini, G. (2000). Political economics. Explaining Economic Policy. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  78. Persson, T., & Tabellini, G. (2002). Do electoral cycles differ across political systems? IGIER Working Paper No. 232.Google Scholar
  79. Pickup, M., & Hobolt, S. B. (2015). The conditionality of the trade-off between government responsiveness and effectiveness: The impact of minority status and polls in the Canadian house of commons. Electoral Studies, 40, 517–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Pierson, P. (1993). When effect becomes cause: Policy feedback and political change. World Politics, 45(4), 595–628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Pierson, P. (2004). Politics in time: History, institutions, and political analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Plümper, T., Troeger, V. E., & Manow, P. (2005). Panel data analysis in comparative politics: Linking method to theory. European Journal of Political Research, 44, 327–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Powell, G. B. (2000). Elections as instruments of democracy. Majoritarian and proportional visions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  84. Powell, G. B., & Whitten, G. D. (1993). a cross-national analysis of economic voting: Taking account of the political context. American Journal of Political Science, 37(2), 391–414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Ranney, A. (1965). Parties in state politics. In H. Jacob & K. Vines (Eds.), Politics in American states (pp. 62–71). Boston: Little Brown.Google Scholar
  86. Sartori, G. (1976). Parties and party systems: A framework for analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Sartori, G. (1977). Democrazia Competitiva Ed Elites Politiche. Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, 7, 327–355.Google Scholar
  88. Schlesinger, J. A. (1955). A two-dimensional scheme for classifying the states according to degree of inter-party competition. The American Political Science Review, 49(4), 1120–1128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Schlesinger, J. A. (1960). The structure of competition for office in the American States. Behavioral Science, 5(3), 197–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Shugart, M. S., & Carey, J. M. (1992). Presidents and assemblies. Constitutional design and electoral dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Soroka, S. N., & Wlezien, C. (2005). Opinion-policy dynamics: Public preferences and public expenditure in the United Kingdom. British Journal of Political Science, 35, 665–689.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Soroka, S. N., & Wlezien, C. (2010). Degrees of democracy: Politics, public opinion, and policy. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  93. Soroka, S. N., & Wlezien, C. (2015). The majoritarian and proportional visions and democratic responsiveness. Electoral Studies., 40, 539–547.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Soroka, S. N., Wlezien, C., & McLean, I. (2006). Public expenditure in the UK: How measures matter. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A, 169, 255–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Stern, M. (1972). Measuring interparty competition: A proposal and a test of a method. The Journal of Politics, 34(3), 889–904.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Stimson, J. A., Mackuen, M. B., & Erikson, R. S. (1995). Dynamic representation. The American Political Science Review, 89(3), 543–565.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Strøm, K. (1989). Inter-party competition in advanced democracies. Journal of Theoretical Politics, 1(3), 277–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Strøm, K. (1990). A behavioral theory of competitive political parties. American Journal of Political Science, 34(2), 565–598.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Strom, K. (1992). Democracy as political competition. American Behavioral Scientist, 35(4/5), 375–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Tillie, J. (1995). Party utility and voting behavior. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.Google Scholar
  101. Tsebelis, G. (1995). Decision making in political systems: Veto players in Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, Multicameralism and Multipartyism. British Journal of Political Science, 25, 289–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Tufte, E. R. (1975). Political control of the economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  103. van der Eijk, C., & Oppenhuis, E. V. (1991). European parties’ performance in electoral competition. European Journal of Political Research, 19(1), 55–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Visconti, F. (2018). The legislative representation of public opinion policy priorities in Italy. Italian Political Science Review/Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica. Scholar
  105. Warwick, P. V. (1996). Coalition government membership in West European parliamentary democracies. British Journal of Political Science, 26(4), 471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Wittman, D. (1977). Candidates with policy preferences: A dynamic model. Journal of Economic Theory, 14(1), 180–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  107. Wittman, D. (1983). Candidate motivation: A synthesis of alternative theories. The American Political Science Review, 77(1), 142–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  108. Wlezien, C. (1995). The public as thermostat: Dynamics of preferences for spending. American Journal of Political Science, 39(4), 981–1000.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  109. Wlezien, C. (2004). Patterns of representation: Dynamics of public preferences and policy. The Journal of Politics, 66(1), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  110. Wlezien, C. (2005). On the salience of political issues: The problem with ‘Most Important Problem’. Electoral Studies, 24, 555–579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. Wlezien, C., & Soroka, S. N. (2003). Measures and models of budgetary policy. The Policy Studies Journal, 31(2), 273–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  112. Wlezien, C., & Soroka, S. N. (2012). Political institutions and the opinion-policy link. West European Politics, 35(6), 1407–1432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  113. Wlezien, C., et al. (2013). Polls and the vote in Britain. Political Studies, 61, 66–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science and Public LawAutonomous University of BarcelonaCerdanyola del VallèsSpain

Personalised recommendations