Empirical evidence suggests that most parties in Western Europe do not take centrist policy positions, despite the centripetal force of the voter distribution. While most scholars focus on the reasons for parties’ divergence, this paper focuses on the reasons for the electoral failures of parties that take centrist Left–Right positions. This paper demonstrates that centrist parties, such as the British Liberal Democrats and the German FDP, suffer from multidimensional disadvantages. Using the 2014 Chapel Hill Expert Survey and the European Election Studies surveys, I show that centrist parties are systematically disadvantaged regarding non-policy issues, such as competence, integrity, and party unity (i.e. valence issues). Second, I demonstrate that given their valence image there is no set of policy positions centrist parties can take to substantially improve their vote shares. While (Left–Right) centrist parties usually take positions that are far more supportive of European integration than the mass publics, moderating their positions is expected to increase centrist parties’ vote-share but not as much as it is expected to increase the vote-share of Christian Democratic parties. These results have important implications for the study of political representation, electoral campaigns, and parties’ policy shifts.
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All data and associated files necessary for replicating the analyses contained in this article are posted at the Political Behavior Dataverse and can be accessed at: Zur, Roi, 2020, "Replication Data for: The multidimensional disadvantages of centrist parties", https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/OWOZSD, Harvard Dataverse, DRAFT VERSION, UNF:6:njM29fT2/Hlqu05nj5xNsA==[fileUNF].
Because elections to the European Parliament do not end with government formation (unlike national elections), I assume that parties are vote-maximizers, i.e., they do not pursue alternative goals such as maximizing policy payoffs, participation in governing coalitions, or the duration of their survival.
I show in the appendix, these voters’ considerations help to improve the general explanation about proximity voting in the EP elections, but they do not alter the substantive argument in this paper.
The correlations between respondents’ self-placements on these dimensions are sufficiently low to treat them as three independent dimensions and are shown in the appendix.
These countries are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Because the EES code Belgium’s Flanders and French parties separately, the analysis below includes only the French specking parties of Belgium, the substantive results below hold for both Flanders (shown in the appendix) and French parties.
In robustness checks I have excluded the agrarian parties and included only liberal parties in the centrist party group. The substantive results hold.
These proximity variables are based on the following questions in EES and the corresponding question in CHES:
General left–right (QPP12): In political matters people talk of “the left” and “the right”. What is your position? Please use a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means “left” and 10 means “right”. Which number best describes your position?
Immigration (QPP17.6): (a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means you are ‘fully in favor of a restrictive policy on immigration’, and 10 means ‘you are fully opposed to a restrictive policy on immigration’. For convenient I have reordered the scale in the opposite direction.
European integration (QPP18): Some say European unification should be pushed further. Others say it already has gone too far. What is your opinion? Please indicate your views using a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means unification ‘has already gone too far’ and 10 means it ‘should be pushed further’. What number on this scale best describes your position?
To maximize variation in the categorical scales I multiply voters’ self-placements by a randomly assigned uniform distribution ranging from − -0.5 to 0.5. For example, all voters who self-placed at 5 had equal probability to be treated as if they self-placed between 4.5 and 5.5 on the 0–10 scale.
The conditional logit framework has another advantage over other models as it provides estimates of vote-choice probabilities that incorporate not only the spatial proximity of voters to the party, but the relative probability of voting for the focal party over any other party, conditioned on the proximity to any other party in the model (e.g. Adams et al. 2005; Schofield and Sened 2006).
In robustness checks I have repeated these simulations using voters’ mean perceived position of the parties, and three-dimensional scaling of both parties’ and voters’ positions. The results of these simulations support the same substantive conclusions presented in this paper.
In the appendix I estimate a variety of decision rules as robustness checks. These models include placing parties at respondents’ idiosyncratic placements, changing voters’ decision rule to a squared loss function (with and without the linear term), and adding a directional component to the model. In all the models, the substantive conclusions of this paper hold.
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An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2019 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. I thank Carlos Algara, Christopher Hare, Ireen Litvak-Zur, Matthew Shugart, the editor, and the anonymous reviewers whose thoughtful comments significantly improved this manuscript. Any remaining errors are my sole responsibility.
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Zur, R. The Multidimensional Disadvantages of Centrist Parties in Western Europe. Polit Behav 43, 1755–1777 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09671-w