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The Agendas of Voters and Parties in the European Parliament Election of 1999

The Agendas of Voters and Parties in the European Parliament Election of 1999
Hermann Schmitt and Tanja Binder1
1. Political representation in the European Union
Even though democratic systems increasingly incorporate direct-democratic procedures:
Modern democracies essentially are representative democracies. The European Union is no
exception to this. As a multi-tiered political system, it follows its particular institutional de-
vices (e.g. Weiler, Haltern and Mayer 1995; König et al. 1996; Hooghe and Marks 2000). But
this only means that citizens’ wants and demands are even less directly involved in the politi-
cal decision-making process than in an average nation-state. Put differently, the quality of the
democratic process in the European Union depends even more on effective mechanisms of
political representation than it does in the nation-state.
In the European Union as elsewhere, the political preferences of citizens are transmitted to the
decision making apparatus through general elections, through a complex system of interest
group involvement in policy making and, to a lesser extent, through political protest activities.
These mechanisms of political representation can be evaluated on two dimensions. One is
their scope. The question here is: what proportion of the citizenry is involved? The second is
their effectiveness. The criterion is: how well are citizens’ preferences translated into public
policy? If it comes to general elections – with sizeable proportions of citizens participating –
the scope of political representation is usually very large. Its effectiveness is less obvious. It
takes empirical studies into electoral representation to explore the relative effectiveness of this
mechanism of interest intermediation (e.g. Miller et al., 1999; Schmitt 2001).
At the basis of the process of electoral representation are the preferences of the voters. Ac-
cording to theory, parties selectively aggregate those preferences and articulate them in their
electoral manifestoes. These electoral platforms, or programmes, are best described as parties’
world views and visions. Parties campaign on those views and visions in order to persuade as
many voters as possible that their views are accurate and that their visions are credible. Vot-
ers, on the other hand, choose the party whose view they most agree with and whose vision
1 Chapter Draft for Voters, Parties and European Unification, ed. Hermann Schmitt. London: Frank Cass (under
review). The Euromanifestos project from which it draws has been funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemein-
schaft (grant identifier: SCHM 835/4-1).
they believe in most. It is the charge of the winning parties to realise as much as possible of
their visions before the next election takes place – i.e. before voters are called to evaluate the
performance of the incumbent government and to decide on that basis, and on the basis of a
new round of partisan views and visions, which party to support (Klingemann et al. 1994).
The effectiveness of electoral representation is dependent upon the relative congruence be-
tween the policy preferences of (a majority of) the voters and the policy outcomes produced
by the elected government. According to the traditional view of the responsible party model,
government behaviour is caused by voter preferences (Kirkpatrick 1971, Luttbeg 1974,
Thomassen 1991 and 1994). Recent European work emphasis opinion formation (top down)
at least as much than interest intermediation (buttom up; see Esaiasson and Holmberg 1996;
Holmberg 1997). However congruence is established, at the end voter preferences and gov-
ernment policies need to converge in order render political representation effective (Klinge-
mann et al. 1994).
If it comes to the multi-level polity of the European Union, we distinguish two major channels
of electoral representation. One is the confederal channel via direct elections to the European
Parliament. The other is the intergovernmental channel via first-order national elections
(Schmitt and Thomassen 1999). As direct elections to the European Parliament do not lead to
the formation of a government, the confederal channel of electoral representation formally
lacks the translation of electoral promises into governmental policies. The directly elected Eu-
ropean Parliament, however, is increasingly involved in EU policy making as well as in the
appointment of the president of the European Commission. It disposes, in addition, of far rea-
ching budgetary powers. This implies that the political orientations of the members of the Eu-
ropean Parliament – if less directly than preferred by many – do have an impact on the policy
decisions taken by the Union (e.g. Wessels and Schmitt 2000). It is therefore that it makes
sense to study the effectiveness of the confederal channel of electoral representation in the
European Union.
The intergovernmental channel of EU electoral representation is no less important. A good
part of European Union politics is decided by the Council, that is: by representatives of natio-
nal governments. Collectively, they are a major player in the EU political decision making
process. National governments are formed as a result of national elections. This implies that
voters may express their European political preferences not only at the occasion of European
Parliament elections, but also in national first-order elections – to the degree to which EU po-
litics are put on the national campaign agenda. The same applies to European Parliament elec-
tions: they can only contribute to the quality of EU political representation if EU politics play
some role in the campaign – i.e. if European Parliament elections are not just “second-order
national elections” (Reif and Schmitt 1980). Determining the actual weight of EU politics in
national and European election campaigns is therefore an important research question which
has received little attention so far.
In this paper, we will concentrate on the confederal channel of electoral representation. We
will shed light on the issues that parties emphasise, and on those that are salient to their vot-
ers, in the European Parliament elections of 1999. Based on the content analysis of the elec-
tion manifestos of the four EU-wide party federations and a post-election survey among the
voters of these parties, we will compare the political agendas of parties and voters and deter-
mine the degree of issue congruence between them.
2. What are European Union issues?
Before we go on to explore the degree of agenda congruence between voters and parties in the
European Parliament election of 1999, it will be useful to specify our notion of European Un-
ion issues. There are at least two important distinctions to make. The first is that there are mo-
re issues than those on which citizens take a position on a policy continuum (so-called positi-
on issues). The second is that the scope of European Union issues goes far beyond constituti-
onal matters. Both distinctions are hardly new or original, but they tend to be ignored in much
of the relevant literature.
The first of these two distinctions refers to the two major scholarly views of party competition
and vote choices: The spatial theory on the one hand (Downs 1957 and most of the rational
choice literature after him), and the saliency theory on the other (Butler und Stokes 1972;
Robertson 1976; Budge und Farlie 1977, 1983a, 1983b; Klingemann et al. 1994; plus a good
deal of modern mass communication studies dealing with processes of agenda setting, fram-
ing, and priming). The basic point of dissent is simple and straightforward. Spatial theorists,
economically inspired as they are, maintain that voters’ choice is ultimately an effort to ma-
ximise their electoral utility by minimising the policy distance between themselves and the
parties and/or candidates on offer.2 For saliency theorists, by contrast, the vote is essentially
about choosing the contender that appears to be the most competent with regard to the issues
that are salient at the time of the election. In this latter perspective, issues can but need not to
be of a positional nature – actually, this is the way in which valence issues can affect vote
choices (Stokes 1966, 1992).3
Our second point here is that the European Union policy making apparatus is not only con-
cerned with constitutional issues. On the contrary: legislative acts originating in “normal” po-
litics are much more numerous. This may appear a bit counterintuitive at a time when the EU
Constitution drafted by the European Convention is discussed in every paper. However, the
empirical evidence can not be mistaken. Over the past fifty years, the policy reach of the EU
has been growing steadily. Today, an average of one in two legislative acts in some 26 central
policy areas is issued by European Union authorities – covering such diverse fields as econo-
mic, juridical, foreign and social policy (according to expert judgements compiled by Hooghe
and Marks 2000, Appendix 1).
We can summarise these considerations and identify the dimensionality of European Union
issues as in the following fourfold table (Graph 1):
Graph 1
Dimensionality of European Union Issues
valence issues position issues
European integration
European Union
e.g. unemployment
e.g. immigration
Source: adapted from Schmitt and Thomassen 1999, p. 117.
2 Note that the directional theory of vote choice – a recent dissident from the family of spatial models – diverted
from this basic consent by assuming that voters would not support the choice option closest to them, but the one
which supports their directional preference “clearer” than its competitors (e.g. Rabinowitz 1989). These claims,
however, are hardly supported by empirical evidence (e.g. van der Eijk, Franklin et al. 1996; Schmitt 2001).
3 Recent empirical work suggests that the salience-competence mechanism is a much more powerful predictor of
vote choices than the policy distance mechanism, and thus a more effective mechanism of interest intermediation
and electoral representation (Schmitt 2001).
Care has been taken that all four quadrants of our conceptual map are well covered (in techni-
cal parlance: “operationalised”) both in the mass survey and the content analysis of party
manifestos. We will come back to that in greater detail.
3. The salience of European Union issues and the effectiveness of electoral representation
Effective representation of voters’ political preferences requires that the issues on the cam-
paign agenda have a sizeable impact on party choice. However, issues come last in a causal
chain of competing factors like social background (Berelson 1954; Lipset and Rokkan 1967),
party identification (Campbell et al. 1960, 1968), or the candidates standing for office (Wat-
tenberg 1991; King 2002; Aarts, Blais and Schmitt 2004). Therefore, only salient issues can
be expected to have an impact on voters’ choice.4
A major representation study that was conducted at the occasion of the 1994 European Par-
liament election found voters’ preferences on EU constitutional issues (e.g., introduction of a
common currency) to be particularly poorly represented by the parties they voted for (Schmitt
and Thomassen 1999). It became obvious that voters’ party choice was virtually unrelated to
those policy preferences. Had these policies been more salient to them, one could assume,
they would have taken them into account when choosing the party they voted for.5
If, then, the saliency of issues is a precondition for the effectiveness of electoral representa-
tion, a number of research questions present themselves. One is, how salient is EU politics to
the voters? This question has two dimensions, a procedural (which policies should be decided
upon on the EU level) and a material (specific EU policies), and we need to consider both of
them. A second question is about the issue emphasis of political parties: What issues do they
emphasise, and do their agendas differ? And third and ultimately we will address the basic
question of any empirical representation research: how well do the political agendas of voters
and parties fit together?
4 In the words of Butler and Stokes (1972:288), this reads as follows: “If an issue is to sway the elector it must
not only have crossed the threshold of his awareness; he must also have formed some genuine attitude towards it.
The more an issue is salient to him and the subject of strong attitudes, the more powerful will be its influence on
his party choice. Indeed, given the multiplicity of influences upon the individual elector, only issues that excite
strong feelings are likely to have much impact.”
5 This is not to say that voters and parties do not agree at all on European matters. The issue congruence between
the two is much larger in view of basic attitudes towards European unification (van der Eijk and Franklin 1991;
Schmitt and Thomassen 2000).
4. Research design
In the present chapter, we are concentrating on the issue emphasis that the European party
federations have put in the their electoral manifestos, and compare this to the issue priorities
of their electorate in the 1999 European Parliament election. Voters’ attitudes are drawn from
the series of mass surveys of the European Election Study 1999.6 Representative telephone
surveys have been conducted in each of the then 15 member countries of the Union shortly af-
ter the 1999 election to the European Parliament. Right at the beginning of the survey, re-
spondents were asked what in their eyes the most important political problem is and were it is
and should be dealt with.7
On the parties’ side, the content of the manifestoes that they have issued at the occasion of the
1999 election to the European Parliament is analysed and compared to the survey evidence.
This content analysis is part of the Euromanifestos project which – together with the Voters
Study and other modules – was one of the components of the European Election Study 1999.
Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), this project content-analyses the
electoral programmes of all parties represented in the European Parliament between 1979 and
1999, including the programmes of the European party federations.8
While the contents of all documents are coded “conventionally” by expert-coders according to
a MRG-inspired coding scheme (the EMCS, see Wüst and Volkens 2003), the 1999 docu-
6 Eijk, Cees van der, Mark Franklin, Hermann Schmitt, et al. 2002. European Elections Study 1999: Design, Im-
plementation and Results. (Computer File and Codebook). Amsterdam: Steinmetz Archives.
7 The precise question wording of the survey data to be analysed is, in the English master questionnaire, the fol-
Q1a. What do you think are the most important problems facing <your country>? [INT: note as many problems as
R mentions. If R starts telling stories, ask to summarize in one or two words.]
Q1b. [If more than one problem mentioned:] Of those you have mentioned what would you say is the single most
important problem? ___________________________ [ . . . ]
Q1d. As of today, is <the most important issue> mainly dealt with by regional, national, or European political au-
1 regional 2 national 3 European 8 dk 9 na
Q1e. And who do you think would be most appropriate to deal with <the most important issue>: regional, na-
tional, or European political authorities?
1 regional 2 national 3 European 8 dk 9 na
8 see In a second phase of the research project, the manifestos issued for the 2004 EP
election will be content-analysed.
ments are coded twice. In order to replicate as close as possible the categories of the coding
scheme in which the answers on the open-ended agenda question in the post-election voter
survey were coded, these documents are additionally content-analysed in a computer-assisted
manner.9 The categories of the coding scheme for the computer-assisted content analysis
match those of the post-election survey. Dictionaries have been developed in the different
languages of the EU member-countries which link text units (i.e. words or combinations of
words) to those categories (or sub-categories thereof). The computer-assisted part of the pro-
cedure is the act of counting those text units. As a result, the proportion of text units that are
falling in each of the predefined categories is determined, which is then taken to indicate the
relative emphasis that a party puts on the different issue categories. 10
5. Findings
5.1. The agenda of EU citizens
If European citizens are asked to think about the pressing political problems, most of them
come up with employment and the fight against unemployment. One in two respondents
names unemployment as the most important problem. All other issues are far behind. Among
those “other”, that is: less pressing problems, law and order is the most prominent, followed
by general economic issues. Welfare state topics, like health care and pensions (and a bit fur-
ther down education) come next, followed by immigration and taxation.
It serves no purpose to enumerate all the issues mentioned by the respondents of the EES’99
surveys (see Table 1). However, what is important in this context is the rank and relative im-
portance of “European” issues. It is very clear that European constitutional issues are of minor
importance to EU citizens. Merely four percent of the respondents mention problems associ-
ated with the European Union, the Euro, and the process of European integration in general. It
is no exaggeration to say that “Europe”, in the eyes of European citizens, is among the least
important of the less important problems. Or, to put it more precisely: is a problem only for
very few of them.
9 This is done with the Textpack programme developed and supported by ZUMA, Mannheim.
10 Note that this is only one of a number of different ways to use computers in content-analysing textual informa-
tion. Another way that was recently proposed by Laver et al. (2003) is the computerised comparison of the fre-
quency of text units in known and unknown or “virgin” documents.
Table 1
EU Citizens’ Most Important Political Problem
(figures are ranks and percentages)
problem rank %
(un)employment 1 50,8
law & order 2 5,3
economy in general 3 4,5
health care 4 4,0
pensions 5 2,5
migration 6 2,5
taxes 7 2,3
education 8 2,1
Kosovo 9 2,0
drugs 10 1,8
social conflicts 11 1,7
peace & war 12 1,7
norms & values 13 1,6
environment 14 1,5
EU in general 15 1,5
minorities 16 1,4
Euro 17 1,3
European integration 18 1,0
other 10,5
Source: European Election Study 1999 post-election surveys; data are weighted.
These few could concentrate in specific party electorates, so that “European” issues could be
very prominent among the voters of one party but not among those of the others. They could
also concentrate among the non-voters which would characterise abstention in European Par-
liament elections as a demonstration of EU opposition and discontent. But again, there is not
much evidence in the data which would support such claims. Non-voters are hardly more con-
cerned about Europe than voters are (Table 2). This confirms the findings of earlier research
which has demonstrated that the low turnout levels in European Parliament elections is not
caused by a presumed Euro-scepticism among non-voters (Schmitt and Mannheimer 1991;
van der Eijk and Franklin 1996; Schmitt and van der Eijk 2003; see, however, Blondel, Sin-
nott and Svenson 1998 with a contrary view).
With regard to party electorates, we do find plausible differences in issue priorities. Socialists
are even more concerned about unemployment than the average voter is. Voters of Christ-
democratic and conservative parties care somewhat more about the economy. Unemployment
for liberals is clearly less of a problem than it is for others, while they put some more empha-
sise on law and order, migration, and the Kosovo conflict. And green voters emphasise the
problems of pollution and environment protection. If it comes to European issues, though,
there is again not much of a difference. Green voters probably see even less of a problem with
“Europe” than the voter on average. Those who voted for a member-party of the two big
European party federations – the socialist PES and the Christ-democratic/conservative EPP –
state those problems somewhat less often than average, while liberal and other parties voters
mention them somewhat more often.
Table 2
Do the Agendas of Party Electorates Differ?
(only “most important problems” that ought to be solved
on the European level; figures are column percentages)
EU party federation / EP group
most important
(un-)employment 57 48 28 44 51 45 37
economy in general 3 7 8 2 6 5 6
Kosovo 5 5 10 7 5 5 5
law & order 3 4 7 4 4 4 6
peace & war 4 3 3 1 3 4 4
migration 1 4 7 1 3 4 4
drugs 2 3 2 3 3 3
environment 2 1 5 12 2 3 3
health care 2 2 1 1 2 3 3
social conflicts 2 1 4 3 2 3
taxes 1 2 2 1 1 2 3
pensions 2 4 1 2 0 2 2
minorities 1 2 1 5 1 2 2
education 2 1 4 2 1 2 2
EU in general 1 1 3 1 3 2 2
Euro 1 1 3 3 2 2
food policy 2 3 3 2 0 2 1
norms & values 1 1 1 2 1 1 1
foreign policy 2 1 2 2 1 1 1
European integration 1 1 3 1 1 1
budget 1 0 3 0 0
corruption & fraud 0 1 2 0 0 0
energy 1 2 0 0
three « European »
categories together 3 3 8 1 6 4 5
Source: European Election Study 1999, post-election surveys; data are weighted.
N=4542. Note that “no entry” means that none of our respondents mentioned the
issue, while “0” means that less than 1 percent of them mentioned it.
Most EU citizen have no problem with the EU and European integration. This is so among
non-voters and voters, among socialists and conservatives. Liberals are a bit different, but just
a bit: they seem to be taking European matters somewhat more seriously. But the difference is
hardly important. Does that mean that voters do not care about European politics? This would
have to be our conclusion if we would concentrate on Europe as a series of constitutional is-
sues. But, as we have argued before, there is more to it. European issues are also about “nor-
mal” politics. Do citizens realise the policy reach of the European layer of the multi-level sys-
tem of governance in the European Union? And if they do, are they happy with it, or do they
want to cut it back? These are the questions which we will address next.
5.2. Who is and who should be in charge of dealing with the most important problem?
Over the past fifty years, the European Union has become a powerful legislator. In a range of
28 important policy areas from such diverse fields as economic policy, social and industrial
policy, legal and constitutional policy and international relations and external security, about
every second legislative act originates at the European level of the multi-level political system
of the EU (Hooghe and Marks 2000, Table A1.1). This far-reaching policy scope of the Euro-
pean level of governance is probably not fully recognised by the citizens of the Union. This is
not to say, however, that EU citizens were unaware of the growing policy making compe-
tences of the Union. Every fourth thinks that the EU is in charge of the problem he or she re-
gards as most important; half of them believe that the nation-state is in charge; and for the re-
maining quarter, sub-national levels of governance are in charge (Table 3).
What becomes evident as well is that the proportion of EU citizens that wishes the EU were in
charge of solving their problem is somewhat larger (34%) than the proportion that believes
the EU is already in charge (27%). While this is not a dramatic difference, it should be noted
that on balance the increase for “Europe” comes at the expense of the nation-state. By and
large, people trust in the problem solving capacity of the European level of governance and
want to increase its competences, while they want to reduce the powers of the national level
of governance. While these findings do not easily square with the current debate about Euro-
scepticism (Taggart and Sczerbiak 2004), they nicely replicate results of the 1994 European
Election Study (see Schmitt and Scheuer 1996; de Winter and Swyngedouw 1999).
Table 3
Most Important Problem: Perceived and Preferred Level of Government
(figures are percentages)
perceived level preferred level of problem solution
of problem solution region nation Europe all
region 10 7 6 23
nation 10 28 12 50
Europe 5 6 16 27
all 25 41 34 100
Source: European Election Study 1999, post-election surveys. Data are weighted.
We take another look at the issue agenda of EU citizens, this time sorted by their the preferred
level of governance. Which problems do citizens allocate to the European level, is there a pat-
tern? There are two tendencies to be observed. One has to do with the scope of a problem.
People prefer Europe to deal with problems that clearly transcend national borders. This is the
case with international conflicts like the Kosovo war, and peace and war more generally, but
also with the protection of the environment, with drugs, and with migration. Absolute (bold)
or relative majorities (italics) of respondents considering one of these problems as most im-
portant (plus social conflicts?) want the EU to be in charge of it. Conversely, majorities of
people who consider problems with a clear domestic scope as most important – examples are
taxes, pensions, education, and law and order – prefer the nation state to be responsible (Table
There is an additional tendency born out by the data, however. It seems that the more impor-
tant issues are – to put it more precisely: the more citizens consider them most important – the
less they tend to be allocated at the EU level of governance by majorities of respondents. Un-
employment and general economic issues are perhaps good examples. Without a doubt, these
are central issues for most EU citizens. Moreover, these problems are arguably of a trans-
national nature. And yet they are allocated to the national level of governance by majorities of
Table 4
Most Important Problems and Preferred Level of Problem Solution
(figures are row percentages and n of cases)
Problem Europe nation region N
Kosovo 84 13 3 224
peace & war 72 25 3 188
environment 54 28 18 171
drugs 46 26 28 202
migration 45 45 10 279
social conflicts 41 33 26 192
economy in general 40 48 12 497
taxes 31
52 17 257
(un-) employment 31 39 30 5625
pensions 31 48 21 275
education 28 36 36 235
norms & values 27 44 29 178
law & order 26 41 33 589
health care 21 41 38 446
Source: European Election Study 1999 post-election surveys; data are weighted.
If we try to summarise what we have come up with on the voters side, there are three points to
be made. One is that “European” issues in the constitutional sense of the term are salient only
to very few voters. No matter whether they stayed home on election day or went to vote, and
disregarding which party they supported, EU citizens have not much of a problem with
Europe. This does not mean, second, that EU institutions and authorities are ignored: a size-
able proportion of citizens believes that the most important problem they can think of is cur-
rently dealt with by the EU, and an even greater number wants the EU to take responsibility.
This is mostly the case, third, for problems with a transnational character and also for less im-
portant problems.
5.3. The issues that EU parties emphasise
We move on to the agenda of political parties. What issues do they emphasise in their election
manifestos? The first impression from the findings of our computer-assisted coding of the
contents of the election manifestos issued by the four EU party federations is that they are less
heavily biased on one dominant topic. While voters are overwhelmed by the unemployment
problem, parties take a more balanced perspective by talking about all the other important
things in EU politics as well. Actually, they talk more about most of the other important
things than about unemployment: what is paramount for a majority of voters comes in on 11th
place (on the average) on the parties side, which is somewhere in the remote midfield (Table
Table 5
The Issue Emphasis of European Party Federations
(figures are percent)
EU in general * 19 23 22 13 19
economy in general $ 9 5 5 5 6
European integration * 6 6 6 3 5
environment 3 3 3 11 5
minorities 7 4 4 5 5
EU institutions * 4 3 7 4 4
parties & political conflicts 3 5 5 4 4
competition policy $ 3 5 4 3 4
democracy 4 2 4 5 4
welfare state 3 6 2 4 4
(un-) employment $ 5 2 4 3 3
foreign policy 4 2 3 4 3
social conflicts 3 4 1 2 2
law & order 2 3 2 2 2
peace & war 1 3 2 3 2
culture 3 4 1 1 2
norms & values 2 4 1 0 2
all three “economic” [$]
categories taken together 17 12 13 11 13
all three “European” [*]
categories taken together 29 32 35 20 29
N of codes 593 202 906 772
Source: The Euromanifesto Project. The distributions are generated by a computer-
assisted coding (using the Textpack programme) of the party federation manifestos. The
English language dictionary is applied. A total of 2473 “meaningful” codes have been
identified in the four texts and assigned to the different categories. A synopsis of the
German and English dictionary which links the different text units to meaning units is
available from the homepage of the project: .
The reader might wonder whether this central difference between voters’ and parties’ agenda
should be attributed to the differing nature of the data sources that we compare rather than to a
defective process of political representation in the European Union. Let us be clear about that.
The kind of open ended agenda question on the “most important problem” that we analyse on
the voters’ side gives respondents just one shot, one problem to mention as their most impor-
tant one. Parties in their electoral manifestos can do much more, and it is therefore easy for
them to appear more nuanced, more fine-graded than the citizenry as we can portray it with
our survey findings. The question is, then, whether the methodological worry is justified,
whether we are presenting artefacts? Our answer is no. True, it is indeed difficult to imagine
that a political party would spend half of its manifesto text on one paramount issue, and be it
such an important one as unemployment. This is just not how those documents are designed.
But parties could talk at length about the economy, about the problems there are to secure full
employment, and about what the Union and its Parliament could and should do to promote
growth and create jobs. This is not what we find in their electoral platforms, however. The
economy, broadly defined, is a clear runner-up in the manifestos of European party federa-
tions. First comes “Europe” – “EU institutions”, “European integration”, and a broad “EU in
general” category which includes treaty and constitutional issues as well as EU legislative in-
struments in addition to mentions of EU as a level of governance and mentions of EU member
countries. Most of these categories and subcategories refer to Europe in terms of constitu-
tional politics. While voters hardly perceive there a problem, this is what parties talk most
about. It is much more important to them than it is to their voters.
5.4. Issue congruence between voters and parties
Let us move on and consider the question of issue congruence in some more detail. In con-
trast to spatial models of issue voting, issue congruence will be measured as the relative fit be-
tween voters’ and parties’ agendas. We will do that by confronting the “top ten” issues of
both voters and parties, identify the number of “common” issues, and compare the relative
emphasis that voters and parties put on them.
The degree of congruence between socialist voters and the election manifesto of the Party of
European Socialists (PES) is displayed in Table 6a. If we look “bottom up” and start with vot-
ers’ central concerns, we find a remarkable discrepancy between their agenda and the one of
the party. The “most important problems” of 82 percent of socialist voters are covered in their
“top ten” list, while the party devotes only 20 percent of its document to those issues. Things
look somewhat less alarming from a top down perspective: 64 percent of the party document
deal with the problems of 67 percent of the voter of the party. The two lists of the “top ten” is-
sues have three categories in common: unemployment, the economy in general, and the envi-
Table 6a
Issue Congruence: The PES and Its Voters
(figures are percent and percentage differences)
“top ten” voters voters party “top ten” party party voters
(un-) employment 57 5 52 EU in general 19 1 18
Kosovo 5 0 5 economy in general 9 3 6
peace & war 4 1 3 minorities 7 1 6
economy in general 3 9 6 European integration 6 1 5
law & order 3 2 1 (un-) employment 5 57 52
health care 2 0 2 EU institutions 4 0 4
environment 2 3 1 democracy 4 0 4
pensions 2 0 2 foreign policy 4 2 2
food policy 2 0 2 environment 3 2 2
drugs 2 0 2 competition policy 3 0 3
all 82 20 62 all 64 67 3
Source: European Election Study 1999 post-election surveys and the Euromanifesto pro-
ject. Note that party and voters have three common issues in their respective “top ten” list
(printed in italics).
Table 6b
Issue Congruence: The EPP and Its Voters
(figures are percent and percentage differences)
“top ten” voters voters party “top ten” party party voters
(un-) employment 48 2 46 EU in general 23 1 22
economy in general 7 5 2 European integration 6 1 5
Kosovo 5 1 4 welfare state 6 0 6
migration 4 2 2 economy in general 5 7 2
ensions 4 0 4 parties & pol conflict 5 1 4
law & order 4 3 1 competition policy 5 0 5
peace & war 3 3 0 social conflicts 4 1 3
food policy 3 0 3 norms & values 4 1 3
drugs 3 0 3 minorities 4 2 2
health care 2 0 2 culture 4 0 4
all 83 16 67 all 66 14 52
Source: European Election Study 1999 post-election surveys and the Euromanifesto pro-
ject. Note that party and voters have two common issue in their respective “top ten” list
(printed in italics).
This meagre fit is again found between the election manifesto of the European Peoples Party
(EPP) and voters of the member-parties of that federation. The congruence is actually even
worse in this case, mainly because unemployment does not make it to the “top ten” categories
of the EPP manifesto. There are only two issue categories which the two “shortlists” have in
common: general economic concerns and arguments, and those referring to the welfare state
(on the party side) and pensions and health care (on the side of the voters; see Table 6b).
We move on to the liberal and the green party and their respective electorates. It appears that
the fit between the issues that these parties emphasise and the political concerns of their voters
is somewhat tighter than it is for the socialist and for the conservative party. Starting with the
liberal ELDR, the voters “top ten” issues comprise the concerns 78 percent of liberal voters;
the party dedicates a remarkable 40 percent of its manifesto to this issues (Table 6-c). Seen
from the party’s perspective, 63 percent of the manifesto text talks about the “top ten” issues,
which 22 percent of the liberal voters mention as one of their most important political prob-
lem. Liberal voters and the ELDR have three common issues in their respective “top ten” list:
the economy, the environment, and the EU.
The political problems that Green voters worry about and the content of the Euromanifesto of
the European Federation of Green Parties (EFGP) are again somewhat closer than what we
found for the socialist and conservative party dyad (Table 6-d). Voters’ “top ten” issues, men-
tioned by 85 percent of them, are referred to in 33 percent of the manifesto text. Conversely,
the party’s “top ten” – covering 58 percent of the manifesto content – is referred to by 66
percent of the voters. Moreover, green voters and the EFGP have a record number of five
common issues in their respective “top ten” list: unemployment, the environment, minorities,
the economy, and foreign policy.
We should not overrate this relative closeness of the two smaller parties with their voters. If it
comes to the issues that parties emphasise in European Parliament elections, and the ones that
voters care about, it is certainly no exaggeration to say the two are worlds apart. This becomes
obvious if we move on from these more descriptive accounts to a systematic analysis of the
similarity of voters’ and parties’ political agendas. This can be done using Duncan’s dissimi-
larity index D. D-values have a range between 0 and 100, where 0 means that two identical
Table 6c
Issue Congruence: The ELDR and Its Voters
(figures are percent and percentage differences)
“top ten” voters voters party “top ten” party party voters
(un-) employment 28 2 26 EU in general 22 3 19
Kosovo 10 1 9 EU institutions 7 0 7
economy in general 8 5 3 European integration 6 3 3
law & order 7 2 5 economy in general 5 8 3
migration 7 2 5 parties & pol conflict 5 0 5
environment 5 3 2 minorities 4 1 3
education 4 1 3 democracy 4 0 4
peace & war 3 2 1 competition policy 4 0 4
food policy 3 0 3 environment 3 5 2
U in general 3 22 19 foreign policy 3 2 1
all 78 40 38 all 63 22 41
Source: European Election Study 1999 post-election surveys and the Euromanifesto pro-
ject. Note that party and voters have three common issues in their respective “top ten” list
(printed in italics).
Table 6d
Issue Congruence: The EFGP and Its Voters
(figures are percent and percentage differences)
“top ten” voters voters party “top ten” party party voters
(un-) employment 44 3 41 EU in general 13 1 12
environment 12 11 1 environment 11 12 1
Kosovo 7 0 7 economy in general 5 2 3
minorities 5 5 0 minorities 5 5 0
law & order 4 2 2 democracy 5 0 5
social conflicts 4 2 2 welfare state 4 0 4
budget 3 1 2 parties & pol conflict 4 0 4
economy in general 2 5 3 EU institutions 4 0 4
corruption and fraud 2 0 2
oreign policy 4 2 2
oreign policy 2 4 2 (un-) employment 3 44 41
all 85 33 52 all 58 66 12
Source: European Election Study 1999 post-election surveys and the Euromanifesto pro-
ject. Note that party and voters have five common issues in their respective “top ten” list
(printed in italics).
distributions are compared, while 100 means that two totally dissimilar distributions are
compared.11 D-values have been calculated for all possible pairs of voter agendas, of party
agendas, and for each voter-party-dyad.
Table 7 displays the results of this exercise. The basic message is that parties talk about things
that voters hardly care about. To give an example: the political agendas of the 1999 electorate
of the socialist PES and its 1999 election manifesto differ at D=71. The conservative mani-
festo and the concerns of those who voted for it are equally dissimilar. The equivalent figure
for the liberal and the green party dyad is D=63. These values need to be evaluated in per-
spective: the agendas of socialist and conservative voters differ at only D=16, those of social-
ist and liberal voters at D=38, etc. The same goes for the parties side: the socialist platform is
farthest apart from that of the Greens, and yet are the two distributions dissimilar at only
Table 7
Dissimilarity of Voters and Parties “European” Agendas
(figures are Duncan’s dissimilarity index values)
socialist conservative liberal green
socialist 71 16 38 28
conservative 24 71 32 29
liberal 21 22 63 41
green 28 35 26 63
Source: Table 2, Table 5, and Tables 6a-6d plus additional information.
The numbers in the diagonal of the table (bold) are Duncan dissimilarity
index values comparing voters and parties agendas; numbers above the
diagonal (italics) compare the agendas of different electorates; numbers
below the diagonal (underlined) compare the contents of agendas of
different parties.
11 Duncan’s index of dissimilarity is defined as
D = 0.5 * Ai/X – Bi/Y
where A and B are groups of observations that are distributed over i categories, and X and Y is the sum of obser-
vations in the respective group.
6. Some first tentative conclusions
Voters care about mundane problems, unemployment, the poor performance of the economy
more generally, the environment, and so on. The “technicalities” of the European Union are
not among them. This is not to say that voters are ignorant if it comes to European politics.
They perceive “Europe” to be in charge of quite a number of important political problems,
and they want on average an increase of the political competences of the Union rather than to
take things back to the nation-state or sub-national levels of governance. Europe is salient to
them as a political actor, not as an institutional or constitutional challenge.
Parties approach Europe in a different way. In their Euromanifestos, they are talking a lot
about the European Union and its institutions, less about the substance of political problems
that voters care about. This is why the agendas of voters and parties do not match very well.
Voters agree with other voters about the important problems more than they do agree with the
party they have supported in the recent election. The same holds true for the parties. The con-
tents of the manifestos of the different party federations are more similar to one another than
they are to the agendas of their voters.
All this may mean different things. One explanation of these grave differences between voters
and the party they have voted for could be methodological. We have therefore considered the
danger of an artefact which could result from the different character of empirical data that are
compared. And while we cannot rule out that some of our discrepancies have a methodologi-
cal explanation, we are confident that this is not the real story.
The real story, it seems to us, is that European party federations and voters talk past one an-
other. The parties are preoccupied with their European visions, while voters have a much
more instrumental and less visionary and farsighted perspective at it.
One reason for this stark discrepancy could be that we started our analyses with the manifes-
tos of the European party federations. Maybe the platforms of national parties are closer to the
concerns of the voters. But this is something that further research will need to address.
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... However, if opinions on cultural issues now have more explanatory power of electoral behaviour than socioeconomic attributes, the latter still play a leading role in shaping their opinions . Issue voting on its own can only account for a partial explanation of voting behaviour (Schmitt & Binder, 2006). ...
... In fact, for salience theorists, a voter will choose the party he perceives to be the most competent to tackle an issue that he considers key in the election (Schmitt & Binder, 2006;Walgrave & Lefevere, 2017). They can be opposed to "valence issues", which are more consensual -for parties as well as voters -, such as the social security issue in Flanders (Coffé, 2008). ...
... The salience of an issue is therefore central to the role of issue ownership for a party in a given election. It is opposed to spatial conceptions of voting which postulate that a voter tries to maximise his vote by reducing the distance separating him from a candidate on a set of issues (Schmitt & Binder, 2006). For , salience should thus be modeled at the micro-level: that of the voter. ...
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Die Beteiligung an Wahlen zum Europäischen Parlament ist gering, und sie ist von der ersten bis zur fünften und bisher letzten Wahl rückläufig. Obwohl sich zahlreiche Forschungsarbeiten den Ursachen der niedrigen Beteiligungsraten zugewendet haben, sind die Ergebnisse noch immer etwas widersprüchlich. Aus der Aggregatanalyse wissen wir, dass der Kontext eine wichtige Rolle spielt. Natürlich ist es für die nationale Beteiligungsrate von eminenter Bedeutung, ob in einem Mitgliedsland Wahlpflicht herrscht oder nicht. Eine große Rolle spielt auch, ob die Europawahl mit der nationalen Hauptwahl oder mit einer anderen, wichtigeren Nebenwahl zusammenfallt. Und der zeitliche Abstand zur Hauptwahl ist ebenso relevant wie die Frage, ob sonntags oder werktags gewählt wird (van der Eijk/Franklin 1996: Kapitel 19).
The 1950 Report of the APSA Committee on Political Parties, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” is relevant today to current problems of public policy and party reform and to the efforts of political scientists, as political scientists, to contribute to the resolution of these problems. This essay examines the Report from a policy science perspective. The Report was explicitly therapeutic in aim. It defined health, diagnosed ills, and prescribed remedies for the American party system; through the remedies prescribed, the whole American political system was to be restored to health. The healthy democratic system was asserted to be one in which the two national parties were cohesive, disciplined, programmatic, and responsible; internally responsible to their members through primaries, caucuses and conventions, and externally responsible to the whole electorate for carrying out their programs. The programs of the two parties were to be clearly differentiated so as to provide the electorate a real choice. The ills of the Ameican system were said to be due to the failure of parties to have these characteristics. The prescription was recommendation for comprehensive reform. Despite the special expertise of political scientists on such “constitutional” questions and the work of such distinguished predecessors as Wilson, Goodnow, Lowell, Ford, and Herring, the Report was both normatively and empirically deficient. Little attempt was made to clarify or justify norms or goals. Repeatedly, instrumental propositions linking proposed reforms to goals were based on inadequate evidence or no evidence at all. Even in 1950, evidence (not mentioned in the Report) was available that cast doubt on the Committee's description of the political world. Subsequent research has produced a rich body of literature making clear that much of the substance of the Report is simply mistaken. The errors of the Report do not vitiate its goals; democratic potential is not revealed by democratic practices. But the errors drastically affect the utility of the Report as policy science. The failure of the Report as policy science is due, in part, to failures of the discipline to clarify the roles of political scientist as policy scientist, to explore adequately the problems of relating knowledge to goals, to pay appropriate attention to the development of political theory, and to develop intellectual tools more specifically suited to the tasks of policy science. The last half of the essay is devoted to an examination of these problems, concluding that the political scientist will succeed in being effective in the policy field just to the extent he succeeds at his own distinctive tasks, in sharpening his own tools, and in thoughtfully applying his special knowledge and skills.