This paper studies the claim that social policy retrenchment has tremendous electoral consequences. It analyzes the electoral impact of social policy attitudes in a comparative design (20 elections in Western OECD countries between 2001 and 2006). I find that punishment is conditional on the performance of governments, indicating that people punish or reward a government for its past actions. However, empirical comparison shows this to be true not only for social policy, but for all types of issues. This study shows that social policy does not have the outstanding relevance for voters as assumed by the social policy literature; accordingly, the electoral impact is only limited and not equally strong in all contexts. The context shapes the link between social policy attitudes and vote choice, but the variance in effect strength is not explained by differences in the institutional setting or the campaign saliency of social policy.
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Only in specific policy areas such as family policy, is expansion still possible.
Please note that this discussion is not entirely the same as the one concerning performance versus position issues. Here, we are discussing the specification of the effect, and the options are direct (salience) versus mediated (performance).
There is some debate in the literature as to whether self left–right placement is just a different measure for party identification as people could use their party identification to answer the question about their ideological position (Luskin, 1987; Sniderman and Theriault, 2004). However, the author of this study is convinced that the differences between the two measures are larger than such a compensation strategy would imply and thus warrant a separate variable.
They list five components: multi-party cabinet, strong committees, bicameral opposition, minority government and weak party cohesion.
It was assessed whether retrenchment was pursued during the current term of the government.
The disadvantage of the CSES data is that the candidate evaluation variable contains a lot of missing values. The missing quote is between 30 per cent and 78 per cent and in some election studies, the variable was not included at all. The author has therefore decided not to include a candidate evaluation variable into the models in order to avoid losing large amount of respondents.
The Swiss Election, 2003 is not included in the study, as ‘voting for the government’ is not applicable to the Swiss context (all major parties are represented in the government, which results in more than 80 per cent votes for the government).
It can be argued that Japan does not belong to the group of Western welfare states (Goodman and Peng, 1996), but the results remain the same when Japan is excluded. Furthermore, two Portuguese elections are included which could lead to problems of overrepresentation. Excluding one Portuguese case though, did not alter the results presented here.
A more refined measure for punishment would be the withdrawal of support for the government between election (t-1) and t. The results obtained with such a dependent variable do not differ substantially from the results presented in this paper.
I used the ‘Notes on recent election’ section of Electoral Studies, the regular reports on elections in West European Politics, the European Data Yearbook by the European Journal of Political Research plus the ‘election summary and general notes’ section of the CSES codebook (Appendix 1).
A second possibility would have been to take the CSES expert view into account. The CSES database contains a variable with expert judgment of the five most salient factors affecting the outcome of the election. However, these two indicators correlate highly (0.47) indicating that the judgments about issue saliency are very alike. For the purpose of this paper, only results based on the expert notes indicator are provided but the results based on the CSES indicator are very alike.
In Bayesian statistics one expresses the uncertainty about a value of a model parameter by assigning to it a probability distribution of possible values (prior distribution). In a second step, the actual computation, one combines the prior information with the likelihood of the data to produce a posterior distribution. The posterior distribution is then used to compute a point estimate and a confidence interval for the unknown parameter. As the posterior distribution is mostly difficult to describe mathematically, simulation procedures (MCMC, especially Gibbs sampling) are used to generate random samples from this complex distribution and to compute point estimates. Here, it becomes clear why Bayesian methods are computationally demanding.
These findings are based on separate regressions for each context. The full models are available on request from the author.
The rather high number of dissatisfied voters might also be due to the negativity bias of citizens (Lau, 1985).
In the sample of this study, we find only three elections where social policy was not a topic at all, in 10 elections it was a somehow important issue and in seven elections social policy was a major issue. A cross table reveals that there is no case where a performance effect is present but social policy has not been a salient topic in the campaign.
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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions 2007, Helsinki. It profited highly from comments of the workshop participants and also of other colleagues. This paper was written in the context of the research project Political Consequences of Attitudes towards the Welfare State and is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation under the grant-Nr. 100012–108274.
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Giger, N. Do voters punish the government for welfare state retrenchment? A comparative study of electoral costs associated with social policy. Comp Eur Polit 8, 415–443 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1057/cep.2009.4
- welfare state retrenchment
- social policy attitudes
- comparative electoral behavior
- issue voting