Responsiveness, Representation & Political Parties

Party Competition, Niche Parties & Government Formation


Scholars’ attention to the concept of niche parties has greatly increased. While researchers agree that niche parties matter in a variety of ways, the definitions and measurements of such parties are manifold and an accordance remains yet to be found. I argue the given conceptualizations of niche parties a) suffer from gaps between their measurements and theoretical concepts or b) lack conceptual clarity. The theoretical concept I propose understands niche parties as a) predominantly competing on niche market segments neglected by their competitors and b) not discussing a broad range of these segments. By measuring exactly these two components in an additive index drawn from the MARPOR data, the validation shows that parties emphasizing niche segments differentiate themselves from their competitors also by using a condensed message on these segments. Especially this component of party competition – the specialization of party offers – has not been studied in the literature on niche parties and should receive more attention.

  • with Florian Foos. “How do Mainstream Parties React to Credible Threats by Extreme Parties?”

A rich body of literature seeks to explain how parties adapt their policy platforms to secure electoral support at the ballot box. Research stresses a divergent set of factors driving policy shifts, with the reaction to competing parties being among the most often employed explanations. Especially the appearance of more extreme challengers – such as radical left and radical right parties – has been said to be a major determinant for mainstream parties’ policy shifts. Yet, our knowledge about how mainstream parties will react to extreme parties has been largely limited to estimating the extent to which their strategies affect electoral payoffs instead of directly identifying the causal link between threats by extreme parties and mainstream parties’ subsequent reactions. We directly address this question and theorize that mainstream parties will be more likely to shift their positions on the left-right scale if they interpret extreme parties’ positions as a credible threat to their electoral success. We assume that a threat by a more extreme challenger becomes immediate as soon as the challenger manages to obtain parliamentary representation in the national parliament. We hypothesize that while such a credible threat leads ideological adjacent mainstream parties to use an accomodative strategy, ideological unconnected mainstream parties will either shift to an adversarial strategy to neutralize the extreme party’s threat or try to fill the void in the centre vacated by their direct mainstream party competitor. Matching data on electoral thresholds to Comparative Manifesto Project Data, we test our hypotheses by exploiting the well-known discontinuities created by electoral thresholds in national parliaments. Based on a regression discontinuity design and randomization inference in the immediate neighbourhood of the representation threshold, we identify the Local Average Treatment Effect of parliamentary entry by a more extreme party on the subsequent left-right position of the mainstream parties.

  • with Markus Wagner. “Do Parties Lead or Follow Public Opinion?”

A key question in understanding policy change in liberal democracies is whether parties shape or follow public opinion. Depending on the answer to this question, parties are either responsive actors that reflect voter preferences, or voters only have weak impact on the policy positions on the agents choose. So far, research has focused on both aspects of the question seperately. Initial research on parties and public opinion focused on how parties adapt to voter preferences, be it the position of the median voter or of party supporters. More recently, several studies have turned to the influence of party positions on voter preferences. Unfortunately, both strands of the literature have developed in parallel, used different data and rarely engaged with each other. We attempt to bring together both strands of research by studying when parties lead or follow public opinion. We argue that parties adapt their strategies along the electoral cycle: between elections parties aim to lead public opinion, while they follow public opinions shifts in election years to maximize electoral benefits. Moreover, there may be key differences between government and opposition parties. We base our analyses on a large amount of cross-national data on public opinion data from the Eurobarometer from 19XX to 2016 and impute party positions by relying on the Comparative Manifesto Data. We test our theoretical arguments using time-series cross section models. Our results have important implications for our understanding of the functioning of liberal democracies.

  • with Florian Foos. “Federalism and Party System Fragmentation: On the Unintended Consequences of Increasing Decentralization.”

Comparative research on the fragmentation of party systems has concentrated on institutional explanations with a focus on electoral systems, and representation thresholds on the one hand, and cultural explanations focusing on the role of a  ethnic diversity of a state’s citizenry on the other hand. In this paper we argue that state structure plays an important role in predicting the effective number of parties in a given political system. Building on Panebianco’s insight that parties can transfer resources between distinct political arenas, we hypothesize that the more resources and spoils of office political parties can access at lower levels of government, the greater the number of politically viable parties will be. We test our theoretical argument based on a time-series-cross-sectional design using the Regional Authority Index (RAI) to predict the effective number of political parties across 37 countries and 65 years. In line with our theoretical expectations we find that the degree of decentralization predicts the number of political parties both across states and over time: Even after controlling for the proportionality of the electoral system and the presence of electoral thresholds, highly federalized states have a much larger number of effective parties. This j-curved relationship is not a function of the ethnic and language diversity of a state. Our results point to an important, understudied variable, adding to the explanation of party system fragmentation, and suggests that the correlation between decentralization and political fragmentation may not be a coincidence.

Studies of niche parties—Green, Regional and Radical Right parties—have noted that these parties hold executive office less often than mainstream parties. Students of niche parties have largely assumed that this tendency is due to differences in the importance that niche parties attach to office goals. It is thus assumed that while these parties pursue vote and policy goals much like other parties, they place a lower value on office-holding. Yet, we have little empirical corroboration of these assumptions concerning niche parties’ strategies. We challenge these assumptions, arguing that the reason that niche parties less commonly enter executive coalitions has more to do with the preferences of mainstream parties than with any reluctance on the part of the niche parties themselves. In contrast to mainstream parties, niche parties’ prospects of joining government coalitions depend crucially on their appeal to the mainstream parties that dominate the bargaining process. Only if niche parties are perceived as persistent, reliable and weak coalition partners will mainstream parties seek to form a coalition government with them. We test our theoretical framework by drawing on a unique dataset on all parties participating in bargaining processes of coalition formation since 1945 in 19 Western Democracies.

Representation & Responsiveness


  • Does Protest Matter? Parties’ Rhetorical Reactions to Protesters’ Claims. PhD Thesis.

In my PhD thesis I disentangle the rhetorical reactions of political parties to public opinion and protest in 4 empirical papers. Previous research on political responsiveness of parties pre-eminently views the relation between public opinion polls and party agendas as the key feature of responsiveness. Yet, taking to the street has become an ever more important toolbox to articulate popular grievances. Social movements have emerged throughout Western advanced democracies and transformed the political landscape in Europe. Also new political parties emerged from these social movements – such as Green parties and the New Left. It is, therefore, surprising that the link between political parties and protest has largely remained a lacuna in social movement studies and the literature on party competition. My thesis is a first attempt to address this gap. I argue that besides public opinion polls, political protest will affect party position taking. I hypothesize that growing protest leads to polarization of party systems. While all parties will increase their attention to the issue at stake during protest in an effort to secure votes and/or office, they respond differently to protest contingent on how their ideology relates to protesters’ demands. Furthermore, the success of protest depends on its support by the public at large. I test my theoretical framework using a new and unique data-set containing party positions on nuclear energy – revealed in interviews, press statements and press conferences – of 67 parties across 12 Western Democracies. I run time-series-cross-sectional models to test my theoretical arguments. Traditionally susceptible to responding to anti-nuclear protest, parties of the left understand increased protest as a window of opportunity to influence policy debate in their favour, while right-wing parties perceive protest as a threat to their ideological position on the usage of nuclear energy. Furthermore, I aim to understand in my last empirical chapter whether protest also affects parties’ issue emphasis in manifestos. To this end, I use the Comparative Manifesto Project data and protest data on 18 democracies across 15 years to estimate how parties adapted their issue emphasis to postmaterialist issues. While I again find a significant influence of protest on parties’ issue emphasis, the polarization hypothesis does not find support in my last chapter. Finally, the instrumental variable models used in this last chapter suggest that the causal direction runs from protest to parties’ position.

Legislators are understood to adapt their policies and agendas to public preferences in aneort to seek re-election. Yet research on mechanisms of dynamic representation purely fo-cuses on the inuence of public opinion measured through surveys. However, in the lastdecades the mobilization of the public through protest has increased throughout Westerndemocracies. This had led scholars to articulate doubts about whether the conventionalinstitutional channels of representative democracies are capable to absorb grievances artic-ulated in popular protest. Although scholars in the eld of social movement studies increas-ingly focus on the political consequences of protest, political scientists have largely neglectedprotest and its consequences. In this paper we combine insights of political science and socialmovement studies and estimate the impact of public opinion and protest on policy agendas.Specically, we use a new and unique data set covering collective action, public opinionand parliamentary legislation across 30 years in four Western democracies. We show thatthe key to successful agenda setting power of protesters lies in the interaction with publicpriorities.

Existing studies show that political representatives’ communications to constituents matter and that they tailor responses to the interests of their audiences. However, previous research from presidential contexts generally neglects the role of party constraints, tensions that may exist between an individual legislator’s position and the party leadership. We argue that representatives in parliamentary systems are not free to maneuver when answering policy questions. Often they need to square their party leaders position with their own, which we argue is resolved by credit taking towards co-partisans and blame shifting towards out-partisans. We propose a randomized field experiment on the Members of the UK Parliament to disentangle whether party mandates condition how legislators respond to policy requests by their constituents. We recruit constituents who send emails to their representative in the House of Commons. We randomize whether constituents describe a pro or anti position on a specific issue as well as whether the email primes the MP to engage with the official party line. Our research has potentially important implications for theories of legislators’ behavior and models of political representation.

  • with Roman Senninger. “What Kind of European Union Oversight Do Voters Want from Parties?”

One of the major concerns in the current public debate in many member states of the European Union is whether and how domestic politicians manage to keep the EU and its representatives accountable to national interests. Recent research suggests that political parties engage in a wide range of EU oversight activities to scrutinize EU policy-making and these studies also claim that comprehensive EU oversight of parties contribute to making the EU more democratic. However, the question arises whether oversight activities do actually matter to voters? To answer this question, we investigate citizens’ preferences for EU oversight activities of political parties using choice-based conjoint analysis survey experiments in the UK and Germany. Participants are presented one of two cases, namely parliamentary scrutiny of TTIP between the EU and the USA and parliamentary scrutiny of future `Brexit’ negotiations. Participants are asked to choose between parties which randomly vary with regard to the following dimensions: 1) time spent on scrutiny, 2) instruments used to scrutinize 3) venue used to scrutinize. Our results have important implications for understanding accountability links between citizens, parties and the executive and at the same time shed light on what citizens expect from their representatives in EU oversight.

Black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) citizens are under-represented in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, the Chamber’s ethnic composition has become more reflective of the general population as a result of the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections. The article seeks to map and explain variations in the extent to which BAME Members of Parliament (MPs) use the Chamber to articulate issues relevant to minority constituents. We compare the content of all parliamentary questions for written answer asked by BAME MPs between May 2005 and December 2011 to the questions asked by a matching sample of non-minority legislators. We find that BAME MPs ask more questions relating to the problems and rights of ethnic minorities in, and immigration to, the UK. However, we also find that all British MPs are responsive to the interests of minority constituents where these are geographically concentrated. Building on theoretical predictions derived from (1) models focusing on MPs’ political socialisation and (2) on the electoral incentives they are facing, we discover that the MPs in our sample respond systematically to electoral incentives, especially in the politically salient area of immigration policy. While these findings are in line with an ‘electoral-incentives model’, a ‘socialisation model’ is better suited to explain the larger number of questions on the interests of ethnic minorities asked by Labour MPs.