The Electoral Effects of Arguments and Partisan Cues: A First Peek at Experimental Evidence from the Swiss Deportation Initiative

The Swiss accepted a controversial anti-foreign crime initiative in a direct democratic vote last month. The so-called deportation initiative will soon keep a group of experts busy who have to prepare a detailed legislative proposal to be submitted to parliament. However, already today the deportation initiative keeps at least four political scientists busy. Jens Hainmueller, Dominik Hangartner, Marc Helbling and I have started to analyze experimental data generated in the context of the deportation initiative.

We conducted a large-scale survey experiment in the week prior to the referendum to explore the effects of arguments and party cues on citizens’ preferences over the deportation initiative.[1] We randomly exposed respondents to one of the two key arguments that dominated the highly polarized pre-referendum campaign. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which instigated the deportation initiative, claimed that immigrants to Switzerland are disproportionately responsible for crime. The SVP argued that the deportation initiative would significantly reduce crime rates and thereby add to public security (pro argument). The Social Democratic Party (SP) said the deportation initiative would violate basic rights guaranteed in the Swiss constitution and even international law (con argument).

The preliminary results look as follows: We find that these arguments had no overall effect on citizens’ vote intentions. Those receiving the pro-argument were no more likely to approve the deportation initiative than citizens who received the con-argument. We also randomly provided respondents with information about which party supported (SVP) or opposed (SP) the deportation initiative. Again, we do not find any difference between these two groups.

However, the preliminary results suggest that may party cues may act as a negative heuristic: Voters who disliked the SP were significantly more likely to vote in favor of the deportation initiative if they received information about the SP opposing the initiative. To track this effect over time, we conducted a second survey in the week after the referendum, in which we called the same individuals. We find that the effect persists. Even two weeks after SP-nonidentifiers had received the SP cue, these citizens opposed the deportation initiative more strongly and had voted significantly more often in favor of it than voters who had received no such information.

The group of experts will have to submit their legislative proposal to the Swiss parliament by July 2011. We have decided to beat the experts at least once by delivering a working paper until June 2011.


[1] We thank the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin and DemoSCOPE for financial support.

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