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.

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Polarization of the Swiss party landscape

The Swiss party system has become significantly more polarized during the last two decades. The Swiss People’s Party has made impressive electoral gains since the early 1990s. At the same time, the major left-wing party, the Social-Democrats, could hold to its vote share of the late 1980s or improve upon it, while the Greens have made important gains. One can thus observe the formation of two poles, with strongly divergent ideological positions. These party blocs have strengthened at the expense of the major centre and centre-right parties, the Christian-Democrats and the Liberals, which have suffered significant electoral losses in recent national elections.

What do these developments tell us about the motivations of the Swiss electorate?

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Which way from Left to Right?

The concepts of Left and Right are very salient in the political discourse. They are probably the labels most frequently applied to describe parties’ political views. They are often used by political scientists, politicians, or simple citizens. The pervasiveness of the Left vs. Right opposition reflects the idea that political conflicts are structured by a single dimension. Debates on a range of issues, including the welfare state, immigration policy and national defence, can be expressed in terms of a Left-Right contrast. Political competition, thus, seems to take place along a single overarching ideological dimension.

At the same time, much research in political science shows that two dimensions are necessary to adequately describe the configuration of political positions: an economic dimension and a socio-cultural dimension. The first one relates to issues such as the welfare state, taxation, or economic regulation, while the socio-cultural dimension corresponds to issues such as immigration, traditional moral and values, or law and order. This two-dimensional conception is reflected in the use of “political maps” to present the positions of parties or candidates. This type of representation has become particularly popular following the development of Voting Advice Applications, such as Smartvote in Switzerland or the EU Profiler for European Parliament Elections. The following figure is a recent example of this type of political map. It represents the positions of the candidates in the upcoming election of the executive of the city of Zurich.

Source: Tages-Anzeiger, 20.02.2010, p.22

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