The effect of incumbency on ideological and valence perceptions of parties in multilevel polities

Abstract

A number of studies recently have investigated party position-taking in multilevel polities. Given the attempts of federally organized parties to tailor their messages to their audiences, we investigate the voter side of the equation: Are voters sufficiently politically sophisticated to pick up on highly differentiated policy signals? Following common conceptions of political preferences, we argue that citizens have a heuristic view of party competition that is shaped by ideological and valence factors, where the latter are much less challenging to process than the former. Accordingly, citizens are able to differentiate only between the national and the regional party on the valence dimension. We argue that a valence delta between different party branches is most likely to be perceived in contexts of high media exposure, particularly when parties are in government. Results from an analysis of survey data covering 21 German state-level elections support those expectations.

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Fig. 1

The eight parties in the Figure are CDU (black), CSU (light blue), SPD (red), GRÜNE (green), FDP (yellow), DIE LINKE (pink), AFD (blue), and PIRATEN (orange). Note that the latter two parties were not included in every survey. The Figure displays the density boundaries for the position parameters as resulting from the MCMC procedure. (Color figure online)

Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    To be sure, noting that voters are inclined to rely on heuristics in forming party perceptions does not invalidate the notion that parties engage in strategic attempts to tailor their messages to regional contexts. Indeed, while nuanced policy signals might well be picked up by competitors, we expect them to be fairly inconsequential for structuring citizen preferences and therefore ultimately unlikely to inform electoral decisions.

  2. 2.

    Although the literature primarily has considered candidates as objects with valence traits, the underlying ideas also apply to collective actors. On the one hand, an inherent valence surplus can be attributed to collective actors (Clark 2009, 2014; Clark and Leiter 2014; Nyhuis and Plescia 2018). On the other hand, valence perceptions of collective actors are structured by individual party representatives, particularly highly visible ones, like party leaders.

  3. 3.

    Neither the choice of the distance function, nor the assumption of a normal distribution affects the model estimates. As alternative model specifications yield similar results (Käppner and Shikano 2015), we opt for the simpler model.

  4. 4.

    One may be concerned that the statistical model cannot capture the variability in the feeling thermometer scores. However, we model the feeling thermometer scores as random variables, which allows other factors besides the spatial and non-spatial components, e.g., measurement error, to be captured by the random component. Indeed, the data show that the residuals are distributed independently and identically normal, as the model assumes.

  5. 5.

    To run the MCMC, we used JAGS (version 4.2.0) and R (version 3.3.2) for further analysis. All codes are available from the authors upon request. The identification strategies and priors are presented in Shikano and Käppner (2017).

  6. 6.

    For a more extended introduction to the party systems at the state-level, see Bräuninger and Debus (2012) and Niedermayer (2013).

  7. 7.

    We include data on all regional elections for which a GLES survey was fielded from 2010 until mid-2017.

  8. 8.

    The data were collected on an 11-point-scale. To ensure as little contamination between the two rating tasks as possible, the surveys typically place the item battery on the federal parties toward the beginning of the survey, and the item battery on the state-level parties toward the end.

  9. 9.

    We do not enforce strict comparability of the parameters between the regional elections because doing so would require observational bridges (cf. Bailey 2007; Shor et al. 2010). For example, we could link the disparate spaces by assuming common ideological preference values for the national party organizations. We refrain from doing so because that might bias the results in favor of the theoretical account.

  10. 10.

    Western states in the sample are Baden-Württemberg, Bayern, Bremen, Hamburg, Hessen, Niedersachsen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Rheinland-Pfalz, and Schleswig–Holstein. All East German states are in the sample—Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt and Thüringen. Because of Germany’s post-war division, Berlin cannot be classified as either a West German or an East German state.

  11. 11.

    The reference category for the variable Government is no governmental function. Government (binary) indicates any governmental function—both as a senior or junior coalition partner. The variable Major party indicates CDU, CSU, or SPD. Major party (Left included) also considers DIE LINKE a major party in East Germany.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 3 and 4.

Table 3 Coalition governments in German states
Table 4 Average missing party placements

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Shikano, S., Nyhuis, D. The effect of incumbency on ideological and valence perceptions of parties in multilevel polities. Public Choice 181, 331–349 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00659-7

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Keywords

  • Spatial models of party competition
  • Valence
  • Federalism
  • Germany