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.

The Effectiveness of Arguments in Direct-democratic Decisionmaking: Evidence from the Swiss Deportation Initiative?

On Sunday the Swiss decided to automatically expel foreign nationals guilty of serious crimes including murder and drug dealing. The vote on the deportation initiative has triggered strong reactions. Unsatisfied with the outcome of the referendum and allegedly ever more xenophobic Swiss immigration policies, opponents of the deportation initiative even engaged in partly violent demonstrations in several towns in Switzerland, a rarity in a country known for its peaceableness.

Two arguments dominated the public debate prior to the referendum, each attached to one of the two political camps. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which instigated the deportation initiative, ran a costly and highly professionalized campaign, claiming that immigrants to Switzerland are disproportionately responsible for crime. The SVP argued that expelling foreign criminals would significantly reduce crime rates and thereby add to public security. It also played to stereotypes. The “Ivan S., rapist, soon a Swiss citizen?”-flyer invoked the well-known Swiss antipathy against immigrants from former Yugoslavia and presumably also alluded to Ivan IV of Russia known as Ivan the Terrible.

SVP Deportation Initiative Flyer. Source:

SVP Deportation Initiative Flyer. Source:


Opponents like the Social Democratic Party (SP) said the deportation initiative was too harsh. They argued it would violate basic rights guaranteed in the Swiss constitution and even international law, since in some cases individuals would have to be deported to countries that practice torture or the death penalty.

Which of these arguments was more effective in changing people’s minds about the deportation initiative? This question is not only interesting for practitioners and scholarship on electoral behavior and immigration. Immigration constitutes a key component of globalization, a process in which countries remove legal restrictions on the flow of capital, goods, services, and, last but not least, labor. Immigration has therefore also become one of the rising themes in international political economy. The Swiss vote on the deportation initiative presents a valuable case to learn about the politics of immigration and the effectiveness of arguments in changing people’s minds about immigration policy.

From a political science perspective, examining the effectiveness of these two arguments poses a considerable challenge. Clearly, asking people about their preferences over the deportation initiative and having them indicate how convincing they find one argument or the other fails to provide any credible evidence. Individuals could hold an opinion because they find an argument convincing, but they could as well find an argument convincing because it supports their own opinion. We also have far too limited knowledge about the large number of other factors that potentially affect both citizens’ preferences over the deportation initiative and whether they find an argument convincing or not.

Jens Hainmueller, Dominik Hangartner, Marc Helbling and I have devised an empirical test that allows us to get an impression of each argument’s causal effects on citizens’ vote intentions. In the week prior to the referendum we conducted a large, representative telephone survey in which we embedded a randomized experiment.[1] We randomly allocated respondents into three groups. We exposed one group to the security argument and the second group to the non-discrimination argument. A third set of respondents received no argument and therefore served as a control group. To evaluate the effects of partisan cues we designed additional statements that individuals were exposed to randomly.

After providing respondents with an argument, we asked them to indicate their preferences over the deportation initiative and to answer more general questions about their attitudes toward immigrants. Any difference in respondents’ preferences between these different groups would be entirely attributable to the exposure to different arguments. Also, we are currently conducting a post-referendum survey in which we call the same individuals and ask them about their voting behavior and attitudes toward immigration to see whether the exposure to one of these arguments has any effects that last beyond the vote on the referendum.

We are currently conducting the last 300 interviews of the post-referendum survey and will post first results in this blog soon, so stay tuned.

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

Xenophobic voters, or just strategic failure? The anti-immigrant vote in Switzerland as a Condorcet paradox

A guest post by Daniel Bochsler:

In yesterday’s referendum vote, Swiss voters have decided to expel foreign delinquents automatically. One year after the minaret ban, this new referendum further fuels the discussion whether direct democracy endangers minority rights. But the new referendum is also a rare observable occurrence of Condorcet’s paradox of majority cycles.

Majority cycles, which have been described by the French mathematician Marquis de Condorcet, are well known to students of political science and economics. However, they remain a phantom, as the literature is widely theoretically driven, and there empirical evidence remains scarce.

Let us define first what we speak about. Majority cycles can occur in any situation where voters have the choice between three (or more) options: Different groups of voters have their preference ordering about those propositions. Imagine that we have a first group of partisans of a reform, which however do not like an alternative counter-proposal, so that their preference order would be Reform > Status Quo SQ > counter proposal CP. A second group of voters is reform-friendly, but between both reforms they favour the counter proposal [CP > Reform > SQ]. A third group of voters does not like either of both reforms, but they would still prefer the counter-proposal to the reform proposal [SQ > CP > Reform]. Each group of voters has rationally plausible, transitive preferences. Jointly, the collective preference order results to be intransitive. Two out of three groups of voters favour Reform over SQ. Two groups, again, favour CP over Reform. Finally, two groups (although not the same), favour SQ over CP. Hence, (if none of the three groups counts an absolute majority of voters,) the collective preference order is intransitive, SQ > CP > Reform > SQ. Each of the three options is defeated by exactly one other option, as this table shows:

Reform vs SQ CP vs SQ Reform vs CP
Voter 1 Reform Status quo Reform
Voter 2 Reform Counter-proposal Counter-proposal
Voter 3 Status quo Status quo Counter-proposal
Winner Reform Status quo Counter-proposal

In yesterday’s referendum, the Swiss decided between two alternative reform proposals – the radical popular initiative by the Swiss People’s Party, a more moderate counter-proposal of the government, and the status quo. And they voted for the most radical option. While we lack information about the individual ballots, the result looks like a Condorcet cycle, as we see in this table:

Yes No % for first option
Reform vs SQ 1,398,360 1,243,325 52.9
CP vs SQ 1,189,186 1,407,743 45.8
Reform vs CP 1,252,625 1,270,831 49.6

The occurrence of a majority cycle could be anticipated in the pre-referendum campaign, as a combination of the voting preferences of different groups of voters. Indeed, the referendum results shows that a majority of Swiss voters would have preferred the governmental counter-proposal (which respects international law and fundamental rights) to the radical initiative – but they voted instead for the initiative. This opens quite a few questions:

1) The counter-proposal contained many of the claims of the radical initiative. Having this in mind, why did a respectable number of those voters who voted in favour of the initiative reject the counter-proposal?

2) Public choice teaches us that in single-dimensional decisions, where we can rank all options on one axis, having two extreme poles and a solution between the two (more precisely, this implies that we should have single-peaked preferences), as in the present case, majority cycles should not occur. Apparently, it did, nevertheless.

The theory of majority cycles also teaches us how to vote strategically in multi-option decisions. Usually, committees or parliaments employ the amendment procedure for multi-option decisions. If there is more than one option for an amendment, then the proposed amendments are voted on in pairs. Acting strategically, a chair that anticipates a cycling preference order, can schedule his/her favourite option in the last round of voting, in order to make it pass.

In multi-option referendums in Switzerland, all pair-wise decisions appear on the same referendum ballot. In this situation, voters can strategically create artificial cyclic majorities in order to make their favourite proposal pass. In yesterday’s referendum, the Swiss People’s Party was probably inspired by this idea. The counter-proposal might have served as a compromise between the radical initiative and the status quo, and it was probably the most popular of the three referendum options. Also, it fulfilled a lot of the Swiss People’s Party’s requests. Nevertheless, the party encouraged its supporters to reject the counter-proposal. Lacking sufficient votes from anti-immigrant voters, the counter-proposal failed narrowly to win a majority of votes, and only the more radical initiative passed. According to the (reform-friendly) rules for multi-option referendums in Switzerland, the optional question (reform versus counter proposal) does not count in such cases, and the popular initiative is accepted.

Anticipating the outcome, the acceptance of the initiative might have easily been avoided. Indeed, in Condorcet cycles, one strategic vote can neutralise another. Radical anti-immigrant voters around the Swiss People’s Party probably rejected the counter-proposal for strategic reasons. Opponents of special laws for immigrants (equal-right-voters) might have applied a simple counter-strategy, and have hindered the radical initiative to pass: voting strategically in favour of the counter-proposal would have secured a majority of votes (and cantons) in favour of the less radical counter-proposal. This would have blackmailed the Swiss People’s Party campaign for the more radical option. Indeed, a group of Social Democratic MPs and several of their cantonal branches have given such a strategic voting recommendation. But the national party branch, along with the Green party, which campaigned for equal rights, decided against any strategic voting.

Switzerland appears like a dream world for the study of majority cycles. There is very little evidence of directly observable Condorcet paradoxes. In parliaments and committees, usually two consecutive simple majority decisions are made, so that MPs do not express their full preference orders, and majority cycles do not become visible. Swiss voting institutions, however, appear as quite unique in the world, as no other country, to our knowledge, applies multi-option referendums where voters can fully rank three options. After a change of the rules in 1987, Swiss voters have a short experience with multi-option referendums where they can fully rank-order all three proposals. Precisely six years before the referendum of yesterday, a majority cycle occurred in a multi-option referendum in the canton of Bern on 28 November 2004.

This new (supposed) Condorcet cycle might not only speak to Public Choice specialists. It might also speak to scholars who are concerned about minority rights in direct democracy. And the same Condorcet cycle also carries a message to equal-right-voters, who are now very concerned about the new slap of the Swiss voters in the face of the immigrant community: No, the referendum result is not only the expression of xenophobic values among many Swiss voters. It is also a consequence of the refusal of many equal-right-voters to vote strategically.