A new look at issue ownership effects

The notion of ‘issue ownership’ is frequently used in analyses of party strategies. Parties are said to ‘own’ an issue when they develop a reputation of competence and attention in that domain. Right-wing parties, for example, have traditionally been associated with issues such as security, while left-wing parties usually own issues such as unemployment. Parties are expected to attract more voters when one of ‘their’ issues is high on the political agenda. The more citizens care about unemployment, for instance, the stronger they should be inclined to vote for the party deemed most competent to handle that issue. Parties’ electoral fortunes should thus be related to the salience of their favoured issues.

While the aggregate level consequences of ownership are straightforward, the corresponding individual-level mechanism is less well known.

As long as we are dealing with ‘valence’ issues, that is, issues on which everybody shares the same position, the individual-level logic seems pretty clear. If people mainly worry about criminality and if most people agree that a conservative party is most committed in dealing with that issue, then we may expect this party to win a large share of votes. But many (or most?) important issues do not have this valence character. Immigration, welfare state reform, or economic regulation, are just some examples of issues where different parties follow different goals. Some of these issues, however, can still be owned by parties, because they emphasize the issue much more strongly. The issue of immigration, for instance, is strongly associated with right-wing populist parties (see for example this article on the last SVP campaign on that issue). But if people diverge over the proposed solutions, what should this ownership imply for the voting decision process?

In a working paper, I explore the impact of such party-issue associations on the voting decision process. To this end, I decompose the voting decision process in two stages: an evaluation stage and a choice stage. At the evaluation stage, voters can use different criteria to evaluate different parties. Relying on data from two Dutch elections, I show that when an issue is owned by a party, this issue plays a stronger role for evaluating the owner than for evaluating its competitors. What does it mean for the most recent SVP campaign? By reaffirming its ownership of the immigration issue, it will lead voters to attach much importance to this issue when they evaluate the SVP. But contrary to the traditional issue ownership model, it does not mean that all parties will be judged by their perceived competence or positions on the question of immigration.

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