Voter perceptions of coalition policy positions in multiparty systems
Thomas M. Meyer
, Daniel Strobl
Department of Government, University of Vienna, Rooseveltplatz 3/1, 1090 Vienna, Austria
Received 1 May 2015
Received in revised form
20 November 2015
Accepted 25 November 2015
Available online 26 November 2015
Coalition policy positions
A growing body of research shows how voters consider coalition formation and policy compromises at
the post-electoral stage when making vote choices. Yet, we know surprisingly little about how voters
perceive policy positions of coalition governments. Using new survey data from the Austrian National
Election Study (AUTNES), we study voter perceptions of coalition policy platforms. We ﬁnd that voters do
in general have reasonable expectations of the coalitions' policy positions. However, partisan beliefs and
uncertainty affect how voters perceive coalition positions: in addition to projection biases similar to
those for individual party placements, partisans of coalition parties tend to align the position of the
coalition with their own party's policy position, especially for those coalitions they prefer the most. In
contrast, there is no consistent effec t of political knowledge on the voters' uncertainty when evaluating
coalition policy positions.
© 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY license
In recent years, political science research has increasingly
directed its attention towards coalitions as an integral part of the
decision-making calculus of voters. Voters cast their votes with
policy outcomes in mind and when doing so, they take into account
the institutional setting in which parties operate (Kedar, 2005,
2009). Analyses of electoral behaviour in mixed-member propor-
tional systems demonstrate that voters consider coalitions in order
to reduce the risk of wasted votes (Gschwend, 2007; Bowler et al.,
2010) and similar mechanisms have been observed for systems of
proportional representation (Blais et al., 2006; Bargsted and Kedar,
2009). In these contexts, voters consider not only the programmatic
offer of parties but also coalition formation processes and coalition
bargaining (Duch et al., 2010; Indridason, 2011). In particular, voters
take the (expected) policy position of coalition governments into
account when making their vote choice (Kedar, 2005, 2009; Duch
et al., 2010; Indridason, 2011).
Yet, we know surprisingly little about how voters perceive
policy positions of coalitions. Most models of coalition-directed
vote choice use an average of respondents' placements of the
constituent parties, often weighted by some measure of party size,
to estimate each voter's coalition placement. This approach relies
on the assumption, originally made by Downs (1957), that voters
perceive policy outcomes of coalition governments as a
compromise between the government parties' policy proposals.
Yet, there is no clear empirical evidence that voters use such simple
heuristics (e.g., the average of government party policy positions)
in forming expectations about coalition policy platforms. Recent
evidence from Bowler et al. (2014) suggests that voters differ sub-
stantially in their perceptions of coalition policy platforms and,
more importantly, that their perceptions differ from the average of
the perceived party policy positions. This suggests that voter per-
ceptions of coalition policy positions are more than the ‘sum of
In this article, we study voter perceptions of coalition policy
positions. Based on previous research on perceptual bias and un-
certainty in party policy positions, we examine the role of partisan
beliefs and information costs on perceptions of coalition policy
platforms. Coalition governments are based on the labels of the
constituent parties, providing voters with clues and heuristics to
estimate their positions. Thus, we expect partisan afﬁliation to
affect perceptions of coalition positions. Furthermore, we hypoth-
esize that coalition perceptions are driven by those parties for
which a voter's priming is strongest. Thus, party supporters of the
constituent parties tend to align the position of the coalition with
their own party's policy position, especially for those coalitions
they support. Finally, we expect that political knowledge reduces
the voters' uncertainty when gauging coalition policy.
We employ direct measures of perceived coalition positions
using the 2013 pre-election survey of the Austrian National Election
Study (AUTNES; Kritzinger et al., 2014). We ﬁnd that voters do
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (T.M. Meyer).
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Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e91
indeed have reasonable perceptions of coalition policy platforms:
many respondents are able to locate coalitions on a lefteright scale
and the variation in these placements is similar to that for indi-
vidual parties. Yet, there is also considerable variation across voters
in how they perceive policy positions of political actors. We use a
perception model of policy positions originally developed in the
context of US Senate races (Franklin, 1991) to study the impact of
perceptual bias and uncertainty on perceptions of party and coa-
lition policy positions. The results of our analysis suggest that party
and coalition preferences affect how voters perceive coalition pol-
icy positions. While we ﬁnd strong support for perceptual biases for
coalition policy positions, there is no consistent empirical evidence
that political knowledge lowers the voters' uncertainty when
evaluating coalition policy positions.
These ﬁndings add to our understanding of voter perceptions of
post-electoral politics and bargaining outcomes; in particular, we
show that voter perceptions of coalitions are more complex than
simple heuristics such as averages of party policy platforms would
suggest. Recent research (Bowler et al., 2014) shows that voter
perceptions of coalitions vary according to beliefs concerning the
parties' electoral success, their bargaining power, and the party
leaders' qualities. We extend these arguments by introducing
partisan bias and information costs as explanatory factors for why
voter perceptions of coalition policy platforms differ. Both factors
have been shown to affect voter perceptions of party policy posi-
tions, and in effect vote choices (e.g. Calvo et al., 2014; Tomz and
van Houweling, 2009; Somer-Topcu, forthcoming). The ﬁndings
presented here suggest that similar effects adhere to outcome-
centric spatial models where voters consider the policy platforms
of coalition governments. Our ﬁndings also highlight that party
supporters tend to be rather optimistic regarding their party's in-
ﬂuence in a coalition government, especially if they strongly prefer
that coalition. This suggests a difference between the voters'
perceived and the actual representation under speciﬁc coalition
We begin by comparing voter s' perceived party and coalition
policy positions using data from the AUTNES pre-elec tion survey.
We then derive expectations of how voters perceive pol icy
platforms of coalition governments and present a statistical
model for voter perceptions accounting for bias and uncertainty
effects. Next, we turn to our data to test these expectations and
conclude with a discussion on the broader implications of this
1. Voter perceptions of parties and coalition governments
Spatial ideological dimensions structure the political arena and
serve as a medium to differentiate political actors along lines of
conﬂict (e.g., Fuchs and Klingemann, 1989). The left-right scheme
has proved a meaningful concept to organise the diversity of po-
sitions taken by Western European parties on policy issues (Dalton,
2013). In the context of issue preferences of the electorate, the left-
right orientation has therefore been referred to as a super issue
‘that encapsulates, impacts upon, and constrains a host of more
speciﬁc political preferences and orientations’ (Van der Eijk et al.,
Given that votes are cast for parties, not coalitions, respondents
are usually asked to rank parties on a lefteright scale. Over the last
ten years, however, an emerging literature has focused on how
voters take post-electoral compromises and policy-making into
account when choosing between parties (e.g. Kedar, 2005; Blais
et al., 2006; Gschwend, 2007; Bargsted and Kedar, 2009; Kedar,
2009; Meffert and Gschwend, 2010; Bowler et al., 2010; Meffert
and Gschwend, 2012). Given the lack of data on perceived coali-
tion policy positions, voter perceptions of coalitions are usually
modelled as averages of party policy positions.
The 2013 AUTNES pre-election survey (Kritzinger et al., 2014)is
one of the few surveys where voters are explicitly asked about their
perceptions of coalition policy platforms. Speciﬁcally, respondents
were ﬁrst asked to place parties on an ideological scale ranging
from 0 (‘left’)to10(‘right’). They were subsequently asked to place
four coalition governments on the same scale.
This allows us to
compare voters' perceptions of parties and coalition governments.
Interviews were conducted face-to-face in two waves (winter 2012;
spring 2013) before the national election in September 2013. The
Austrian party system contains two classic mainstream parties, the
Social Democrats (SP
O) and the People's Party (
OVP), as well as the
Greens and the Freedom Party (FP
O) as niche parties. Several coa-
lition options were being discussed before the 2013 election. Re-
spondents were asked to place four potential two-party coalition
governments. Three of these coalitions (
O) have governed at some point in the post-war period, while
there are several SP
O-Greens coalition governments at the regional
level. In the context of the Austrian party system, they thus
represent viable options for future governments.
Table 1 shows the average perceptions of party and coalition
policy positions, two measures for variability in voter placements,
and the share of ‘don't know’ responses. Dispersion in voters'
judgments is indicated using the standard deviation and Van der
Eijk's (2001) measure of perceptual agreement, where higher
values indicate more agreement. For voter perceptions of coalition
governments, we also show the share of respondents who locate
coalitions in between the two parties' perceived policy positions.
Table 1 suggests that voters are capable of placing parties and
coalition governments in a one-dimensional policy space. The
mean perceived party positions range from the Greens on the left,
the Social Democrats (SP
O) and the People's Party (
OVP) as centre-
left and centre-right parties to the FP
O at the right end of the
spectrum. About two thirds (65.7 per cent) of the respondents rank
the parties this way from left to right.
The mean perceived coalition policy positions reﬂect the com-
mon wisdom of coalition politics: The SP
O-Greens coalition is
perceived as the left-most coalition option, while an
government is a coalition closest to the right end of the policy scale.
OVP and SP
O coalitions are perceived as policy plat-
forms close to the centre of the policy space. About 43 per cent of
the respondents rank the coalition governments in this order (i.e.
O). While this estimate
is lower than that for individual parties, most respondents (ranging
from 59 to 68 per cent) rank coalition policy platforms in-between
the constituent parties' perceived policy positions.
In addition, the variability in voter placements for coalition
policy positions is also similar to that for party positions. In fact, the
OVP coalition has the highest agreement score and
none of the coalition government scores is substantially lower than
for individual party placements. The share of ‘don't’ know’ re-
sponses for coalition governments is also similar to that for indi-
vidual parties. About one in ten survey respondents is unable or
unwilling to locate coalitions on the lefteright scale. The only
Similarly, the (seat-weighted) average of coalition parties is often used to
indicate a coalition's policy position and to assess the ideological congruence be-
tween (multiparty) governments and the median citizen (e.g. Powell, 2000;
McDonald et al., 2004; Golder and Stramski, 2010).
The question was phrased as follows: ‘Where would you place the following
potential coalitions on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means “left” and 10 means
“right”? You can use the values in between to give a more precise answer.’
Three additional parties (Team Stronach, NEOS, and BZ
O) are not included in the
coalition governments discussed below, and we refrain from discussing them in
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e91 81
exception is the SP
O coalition where 25 per cent of re-
spondents refuse to answer.
While overall citizens seem to have reasonable expectations
about coalition policy positions, there is also a lot of variation in
how voters perceive coalition policy positions relative to party
policy positions. In particular, taking averages of perceived party
positions to gauge perceptions of coalition governments is only a
crude measure. To illustrate this, the four panels in Fig. 1 show the
relationship between voter perceptions of a coalition's policy po-
sition (y-axis) and the mean of the perceived policy positions of its
constituent parties (x-axis). The dashed lines indicate predicted
values from a linear regression model. While a general positive
trend is visible in the four panels, coalition placements of individual
voters can differ considerably from the average of the perceived
party positions. In the following section, we derive expectations to
explain this variation.
2. Modelling perceptions of coalition policy positions
Drawing on a general model of voter perceptions of policy
platforms (Franklin, 1991), we account for two potential sources of
individual level variation in voter perceptions of coalition policy
positions: perceptual bias and uncertainty (see e.g. Enelow and
Hinich, 1984). Perceptual bias is directional and results from in-
dividuals' likes and dislikes of political actors. For example, re-
spondents tend to place the party they prefer close to their own
policy preferences. In turn, uncertainty denotes (non-systematic)
randomness in survey responses. It may result from the behaviour
of political actors (e.g. the vagueness of their policy proposals) as
well as from characteristics of individual respondents (e.g. infor-
mation costs). We discuss both factors and their potential impact
on perceptions of coalition policy positions in turn.
2.1. Perceptual bias
Perceptions of policy platforms differ systematically when
voters' judgements are affected by their predispositions. A vast
literature in political psychology suggests that individuals aim to
avoid cognitive dissonance and make judgments in line with prior
attitudes, in particular based on their partisan afﬁliation (Markus
and Converse, 1979; Redlawsk, 2002; Taber and Lodge, 2006).
Research from political psychology on motivated reasoning (Kunda,
1990; Taber and Lodge, 2006) shows that voters are driven both by
accuracy and directional goals when evaluating information. While
the former drives voters to assess political circumstances as accu-
rately as possible, the latter can lead partisans to evaluate ‘their’
party and its achievements more positively than those of other
parties (e.g. Bartels, 2002; Levine, 2007; Marsh and Tilley, 2009;
Blais et al., 2010; Wagner et al., 2014).
Partisanship also serves as a ‘perceptual screen’ (Campbell et al.,
1960) for voters' perceptions of policy positions (see e.g., Merrill
et al., 2001; Krosnick, 2002; Drummond, 2011; Fern
azquez and Dinas, 2012; Grand and Tiemann, 2013). The projec-
tion hypothesis suggests that voters evaluate policy positions in
congruence with prior affective judgments. To avoid inconsistency
between one's attitudes towards a candidate and a given issue,
voters pull positions of preferred candidates closer to their own
(assimilation), while placing the positions of disliked candidates
further away (contrast)(Krosnick, 2002:117e119). This variation in
perceived party policy platforms also affects vote choices (Calvo
et al., 2014).
We expect that biased information-processing also shapes the
way voters form perceptions of coalitions. Coalitions are typically
described using party labels (or colours) of their constituent parties.
For example, the two-party coalition between Social Democrats
O) and Greens is dubbed the ‘SP
O-Greens coalition’ or the ‘Red-
Green’ coalition government. Voters may use these party labels to
judge coalitions, leading to similar projection effects as for party
perceptions. Thus, we expect that party supporters aim to decrease
the distance between their own position and a coalition that in-
volves their preferred party. In contrast, partisans of parties that are
not involved in the coalition should perceive the coalition as being
further away from their personal preferences.
Hypothesis 1. Partisans of the constituent parties perceive a
coalition closer to their own policy preferences, while non-
supporters place the coalition further away.
Hypothesis 1 extends the argument that partisanship affects
perceptions of party policy positions to percerptions of coalition
policy positions. Yet, an importance difference between both types
of political actors e parties and coalitions e is that voters in the
latter case are primed with several party labels. This raises the
question how each party label affects the perception of the co-
alition's policy position. For example, in a SP
either both party labels may have the same effect for gauging the
coalition's platform or one of the party labels, SP
O or Greens, may
be a more inﬂ uential shortcut for the coalition policy position on
the lefteright scale. We expect that coalition perceptions are driven
by those parties for which the priming is strongest. Speciﬁcally, we
hypothesize that voters who have a strong positive affect for one
party put more weight on the position of their preferred party in a
coalition. Thus, voters who are afﬁliated with a constituent party
are more likely to align the position of the coalition with their
preferred party's position. For a two-party coalition of the Social
O) and the Greens, we expect that partisanship
causes systematic disagreement between partisans of the SP
those of the Greens: SP
O partisans ‘over-estimate’ the Social
Democrats' impact (i.e. they place the coalition closer to where they
Voter perceptions of party and coalition policy positions.
Mean perceived position 2.6 3.7 5.8 7.9
SD 2.0 1.6 1.6 2.1
Perceptual agreement 0.52 0.59 0.62 0.57
DK (in %) 8.5 6.9 7.1 6.7
Mean perceived position 3.2 5.0 5.4 6.7
SD 1.8 1.3 1.8 2.0
Perceptual agreement 0.55 0.75 0.57 0.51
DK (in %) 12.2 11.3 25.5 12.9
Placements in range of party positions (in %) 58.9 68.2 62.5 65.0
Note: Number of respondents is 3266. Data not weighted. Perceptual agreement (Van der Eijk, 2001) measures the voters' agreement in placing political actors. The measure
varies from 1 to 1. Higher values indicate more agreement (calculated using the agrm package in Stata).
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e9182
place the SP
O), while partisans of the Greens push the coalition's
policy platform closer to their party.
Hypothesis 2. Party supporters of the constituent parties tend to
align the position of the coalition with their own party’s policy
We have thus far focused on perceptual biases arising from
single party labels, that is, whether voters support one party in a
coalition or not. Yet, partisans of a coalition party may also prefer
different coalition alternatives. Preferences for coalitions are
distinct from, albeit tied to, party preferences (e.g., Meffert and
Voters form coalition preferences based on
historical patterns and contextual cues (Debus and Müller, 2014).
For instance, voters may prefer coalitions they consider viable
based on previous government formation attempts or pre-electoral
Fig. 1. Voter perceptions of coalition policy positions.
We thank two reviewers for pointing our attention to this argument.
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e91 83
signals. Partisan assimilation effects should be strongest if partisans
prefer a coalition. Negative feelings towards an ideologically distant
party could in turn lead to an overall dislike of the coalition, which
should offset any partisan assimilation effects (Debus and Müller,
2014). We therefore hypothesize that voters place a coalition
closer to their own position if they favour a hypothetical coalition
featuring their preferred party. In contrast, this effect should be
weaker among disliked coalition options.
Hypothesis 3. The more party supporters of the constituent
parties prefer a coalition, the more they tend to align the position of
the coalition with their own party’s policy position.
Uncertainty is the (non-systematic) ‘ noise’ surrounding per-
ceptions of policy platforms. In contrast to systematic distortion in
the perception of politics based on partisan sympathies, variation in
voters' perceptions caused by uncertainty is not directional. Rather,
high uncertainty means that voters are less able to gauge the co-
alition's policy platform with precision. Central to the uncertainty
in perceptions of policy platforms is Downs's (1957) notion of in-
formation costs: voters need information about (party or coalition)
policy platforms, but gathering information is costly. Voters are
more likely to being informed about policy positions, and thus less
uncertain, if information costs are low. For example, more educated
people face fewer difﬁculties in processing information from media
reports, and as a result may be more certain about placing political
actors on a policy scale (Alvarez, 1997; Alvarez and Brehm, 2002).
Moreover, perceptual uncertainty depends on a voter's store of
objective political information, that is, the pre-existing level of
political knowledge and exposure to information on politics
(Alvarez, 1997). For example, higher media or campaign exposure,
interest in politics, and strong afﬁliations with the party system
decrease the uncertainty about policy platforms (Franklin, 1991;
Alvarez, 1997; Nadeau et al., 2008).
We test whether variation in individual information costs also
affects perceptions of coalitions. If perceptions of coalition policy
positions are formed similarly to that for parties, some voters
should ﬁnd it easier to locate coalitions in a policy space. Given that
parties do not campaign on a common election platform, all voters
need to integrate information on the policies of individual parties to
place coalitions. Yet, we expect that some voters perform this task
more easily based on their familiarity with (a) the location of the
coalition's constituent parties, (b) the relative size of the parties,
and (c) the trade-offs and country-speciﬁc traditions involved with
coalition politics. Differences in coalition placements should
therefore be smaller among well-informed voters.
Hypothesis 4. Voters with higher levels of political sophistication
are more certain when placing coalition positions.
3. Model and data
We study the effects of systematic (perceptual bias) and non-
systematic (uncertainty) factors for voters' perceptions of (party
and coalition) policy platforms. Despite the vast literature on both
types of perceptual uncertainty, there are only a few studies that
integrate both factors in their analyses. One exception is Franklin's
(1991) analysis on voter perceptions of policy positions of US sen-
ators. Considering two senators, his model distinguishes perceptual
inﬂuences on voter perceptions and a stochastic component.
We adapt Franklin's (1991) approach to parties and coalition
governments and model voter perceptions of policy positions of
political actors (parties A, B, and the coalition government AB)
simultaneously. The systematic part of this model captures
perceptual bias in perceived policy positions depending on parti-
sanship and coalition preferences
where voter i's perceived position of political actor j is expressed as
, the covariates x
are factors accounting for perceptual bias, and
captures the regression coefﬁcients:
Instead of independent and identically distributed errors
), we follow Franklin (1991) and model uncertainty as
a function in the voters' information costs. In the model, this is
reﬂected by heteroskedasticity in the error terms:
¼ exp b
¼ exp b
indicates the interdependence of the voters'
uncertainty when placing political actors on policy scales. While
not of central concern in our analysis, we expect a positive corre-
lation as greater uncertainty for one political actor should in gen-
eral lead to greater uncertainty placing other political actors.
Also following Franklin (1991), we assume that perceived po-
sitions follow a multivariate normal distribution with mean
) and covariance matrix S
. This leads to the
and a corresponding log likelihood function
log La; b
We estimate four models, one for each coalition government,
based on the log likelihood function in (6). All models are estimated
using the statistical software R. Tables with full regression results
are shown in in the appendix (Tables A.1 to A.4).
We use a pre-election survey conducted several months prior to
the Austrian legislative election on September 29, 2013 (Kritzinger
et al., 2014). Our dependent variables are voter perceptions of party
and coalition policy positions. Respondents were asked to place
parties and coalitions on a scale ranging from 0 (‘left’)to10(‘right’).
The data contain questions on four coalition options (SP
O) and their constituent parties.
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e9184
We measure perceptual bias using dummy variables for parti-
sanship. Respondents indicate whether there is a party they ‘feel
closest to’, and if so, to indicate the party's name. The systematic
part in the regression model (1) and (2) thus contains dummy
variables indicating partisanship for one of the four parties (SP
O, and the Greens). Following Hypothesis 1, partisanship
should affect perceptions of coalition policy positions. Partisans of
the coalition's constituent parties should perceive a coalition closer
to their own policy preferences, while supporters of non-coalition
parties should place it further away.
Hypothesis 2 states that partisans of the two constituent coali-
tion parties are particularly conﬁdent in their party's impact on the
coalition's policy position. Thus, partisans of party A should
perceive coalition AB to be closer to party A's policy platform than
partisans of party B. We use the regression results in (1) and derive
predicted values for voter perceptions of a coalition's policy posi-
and that of the prime minister's party
calculate the policy distance d between these two perceived policy
positions both for partisans of party A and partisans of party B:
where i denotes party supporters of either party A or B. According
to Hypothesis 2, we expect that partisans of party A perceive their
party to be more inﬂuential than partisans of party B. The distance
between the position of party A and the coalition's position should
therefore be smaller for partisans of party A than for partisans of
party B (i.e., d
To test Hypothesis 3, we use indicators for the voters' coalition
preferences. For each of the four coalition governments, re-
spondents are asked to indicate how much they prefer this coali-
tion government (on a 0e10 scale).
Again, we estimate the
perceived distance of party A to the coalition's policy position for
partisans from party A (d
) and B (d
) and let the coalition prefer-
ences vary from the minimum (0) to the maximum (10). We expect
that the perceived distance across partisans is highest when they
strongly prefer the coalition (i.e. d
for those party supporters
who strongly prefer coalition AB).
According to Hypothesis 4, voters with higher levels of political
knowledge should be more certain when placing coalitions. We use
political knowledge to indicate information costs in (4). It is
measured using seven question items testing the respondents'
knowledge on, for example, institutional rules (e.g. the electoral
threshold) and the party af ﬁ liation of public ofﬁcials. Political
knowledge is then measured as the number of correct answers to
these questions. We expect that political knowledge reduces voters'
uncertainty and should therefore have a negative effect on the
variance of placements.
We present marginal effects and predicted values to test
Hypotheses 1 to 4 using graphs and tables. We start by analysing
perceptual bias in the perception of party and coalition policy po-
sitions. To test Hypothesis 1, Fig. 2 shows how different partisan
groups perceive party and coalition policy positions for four
coalition governments: SP
O-Greens (upper left), SP
O (lower left), and the
O coalition (lower
right). Coalition preferences are held constant at the mean for the
respective partisan group.
Fig. 2 shows strong evidence for perceptual bias in party policy
positions. The highest consensus among partisan groups exists for
the Social Democrats, where the perceived policy platform ranges
from 3.3 (FP
O partisans) to 3.8 (Green partisans) on the 0e10
lefteright scale. Disagreement is higher for the
OVP (5.4e6.3) and
the Greens (1.9e2.8). It peaks with respect to the policy platform of
O: Green partisans see the party as being much more to the
right (9.0) than
OVP partisans (7.7). These differences in the
perceived policy positions replicate ﬁndings of previous analyses on
contrast and assimilation effects (e.g. Merrill et al., 2001;
Drummond, 2011; Fern
azquez and Dinas, 2012). For
example, Green party supporters see their party's policy platform as
more to the left than many other partisan groups, indicating
assimilation by Green partisans (mostly with left-wing policy pref-
erences). In turn, FP
O partisans also see the Greens as very leftist, but
in this case pushing the party to the left indicates a contrast effect.
Supporting Hypothesis 1, Fig. 2 also reveals disagreement in the
perception of coalition policy platforms. As stated in Hypothesis 1,
these differences follow systematic patterns based on voters'
liation with the constituent parties in a coalition. For
example, the SP
O coalition (lower left panel in Fig. 2)is
perceived as more to the right by the left-wing Green partisans
(6.2) and as more to the left by the centre-right
OVP partisans (4.9).
Both voter groups support parties other than those in the coalition.
As a result, they perceive the coalition's policy position further
away from their personal policy preferences. Such contrast and
assimilation effects are also present for the SP
left-wing Green partisans and right-wing FP
O partisans place the
coalition more to the left than supporters of the centre parties (SP
OVP). Green partisans thereby reduce the distance to their own
position, while supporters of the FP
O place the coalition further
away from their own position. The magnitude of these perceptual
biases is about the same as for party perceptions, ranging from 0.6
O-Greens) to 1.3 points (SP
Turning to Hypothesis 2, we expect that partisans of the con-
stituent parties should see ‘their’ party as particularly powerful in
shaping the coalition policy position. For example, SP
should place the SP
O-Greens coalition closer to the SP
platform than supporters of the Greens. For partisans of each party
in a coalition, Table 2 shows how close the perceived coalition
policy platform is to the perceived position of party A (see (7))
holding coalition preferences at the mean for the respective
partisan group. We expect that partisans of party A perceive the
coalition policy position to be closer to their party's policy platform
than partisans of party B.
For all four coalition governments in Table 2, partisans of the
designated PM party (Party A) perceive their party to be closer to
the coalition policy platform than those of the junior coalition
partner (Party B). For instance, for SP
O supporters the perceived
distance between the SP
O and the SP
O-Greens coalition is about 0.5
points on a 0e10 scale. In contrast, Green partisans believe that the
policy distance between the SP
O and the SP
O-Greens coalition is
We use the larger party as a focal point because previous research suggests that
voters use the PM party as an anchor when placing government parties on a
lefteright scale (Fortunato and Adams, 2015).
The question was phrased as follows: ‘Now, I'd like to ask you a few questions
about the next federal government. Using a scale from 0 to 10, please indicate to
what extent you would prefer a coalition between the following parties regardless
of how likely the coalition is. 0 means, I do not prefer this coalition at all and 10
means, I very much prefer this coalition.’
We show contrast and assimilation effects setting coalition preferences to the
mean of the respective partisan group. Yet, the interaction effects included in the
model also imply that contrast and assimilation effects for coalition policy positions
are strongest for those partisans with strong coalition preferences. For example, the
O supporters prefer a
O coalition, the closer the perceived coalition
position is to the right end of the policy scale (assimilation effect). Similarly, the
more Green party supporters dislike a
O coalition, the closer the perceived
coalition position is to the right end of the policy space (contrast effect).
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e91 85
roughly 0.9 points on the same policy scale. The differences are
most pronounced for the
O coalition. Here,
perceive this coalition's policy position to be about 0.8 points closer
OVP than partisans of the FP
O. As indicated in the last column
in Table 2, these differences are statistically signiﬁcant at conven-
tional levels. Thus, partisans indeed perceive the position of their
party as being particularly inﬂuential in the coalition government
Are party supporters more likely to align a coalition's policy
platform with their own party's policy position if they strongly
prefer a coalition? We test this expectation in Fig. 3. In each panel,
the y-axis shows the difference in how partisans of parties A and B
perceive the distance between party A and the coalition policy
platform (i.e. column ‘d
’ in Table 2). As for Hypothesis 2,
negative values indicate that partisans of party A align the position
of the coalition with their own party's policy position more than
partisans of party B. The x-axis denotes the partisans' preferences
for the respective coalition from 0 to 10.
Except for the SP
O-Greens coalition, there is strong evidence for
Hypothesis 3: Party supporters tend to align the position of the
coalition with their own party's policy position, but this effect is
conditional on their coalition preferences. For example, consider
O and FP
O supporters who strongly dislike the SP
Among these SP
O and FP
O partisans, there is no signiﬁcant differ-
ence in the perceived distance between the SP
O and the coalition's
policy platform. As the preferences for the coalition increase,
O and FP
O partisans have increasingly different per-
ceptions of the SP
O’s impact in that coalition. Among those who
prefer the SP
O coalition the most (i.e. 10 on the 0e10 scale),
O supporters perceive the coalition's policy position to be 1.6
points closer to the SP
O policy position than FP
O partisans. The
pattern is similar in all four panels, but strongest for those co-
alitions where the radical-right FP
O is involved.
Turning to uncertainty in p erceptions of policy platforms (i.e.,
non-systematic error), we hypothesized that individu al-level in-
formation costs explain differences between voters (Hypothesis
4). Speciﬁcally, political knowledge should reduce voter uncer-
tai nty sur roundin g the placement of coalitions. We present mar-
ginal effec t plots for the effect of political knowledge on voters'
Fig. 2. Perceived party and coalition policy platforms by partisanship.
Perceived party impact on coalition policy positions by partisanship.
Coalition Distance to Party A by partisans of:
Party A (d
) Party B (d
0.511 (0.337; 0.693) 0.940 (0.676; 1.214) 0.428 p ¼ 0.003
1.294 (1.128; 1.467) 1.655 (1.466; 1.835) 0.361 p ¼ 0.003
1.930 (1.741; 2.125) 2.172 (1.897; 2.462) 0.242 p ¼ 0.090
0.421 (0.213; 0.638) 1.259 (1.002; 1.519) 0.837 p < 0.001
Note: Estimates for the perceived distance between a coalition's policy position and that of party A (see (7)), holding coalition preferences at the mean for the respective
partisan group. 95% conﬁdence intervals (in parentheses) and p-values based on 1000 simulations based on model estimates in Tables A.1 to A.4.
We also test Hypotheses 2 and 3 using perceptions of party B's policy position
as a reference point. The results (not shown) are similar but somewhat weaker than
those for party A, and not all differences are statistically signiﬁcant at conventional
levels. This suggests that the alignment effect is largely captured by the perceived
distances between the PM party and the coalition policy position.
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e9186
uncertainty in Fig. 4. The four panels show the marginal effects for
each coalition government along with the effects for its consti t-
In line with previous research on party perceptions, political
knowledge signiﬁcantly reduces voter uncertainty for three out of
the four parties in our analysis (SP
OVP, and FP
knowledge has no signiﬁcant effect on the uncertainty surrounding
the Greens' party platform. This is in line with previous research
that highlights the effect of ideology and party family on voters'
perceptions of policy platforms (Dahlberg, 2013; Meyer and Müller,
2012). With regard to coalition governments, knowledgeable voters
are more certain in placing the incumbent SP
(second panel). Yet, political knowledge has no signiﬁcant effect on
the uncertainty for the remaining coalition governments. We
therefore reject Hypothesis 4. Yet, it is worth noting that the overall
level of voter uncertainty, captured in the intercept of the variance
function, is not higher for any coalition than for its constituent
When the institutional setup fosters multiparty systems and
Fig. 3. Conditional effect of coalition preferences on perceived party impact in coalitions.
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e91 87
coalition governments, voters have incentives to think beyond
party voting and to consider post-electoral bargaining processes.
We employ direct measures of perceived coalition policy positions
to show that most voters are capable of applying the left-right
dimension to coalition governments. Coalition positions, even if
hypothetical, can therefore be seen as meaningful concepts to the
electorate. In line with previous research, this ﬁnding suggests that
voters are able to build reasonable perceptions of coalition policy
platforms (Meffert et al., 2011; Debus and Müller, 2014).
Corroborating recent research (Bowler et al., 2014), our analysis
Fig. 4. Marginal effects of political knowledge on voter uncertainty.
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e9188
has also shown that voters' perceptions of coalition policy positions
are more than just averages of perceived party policy platforms.
Rather, voter perceptions of coalition governments are shaped by
partisan and uncertainty effects in addition to those that affect
individual party positions. As for party policy positions, perceptual
bias and uncertainty affect perceptions of coalition policy positions.
Partisans of the constituent parties perceive a coalition's policy
platform as being closer to their own policy preferences, and they
tend to align the position of the coalition with their own party's
policy position. This is particularly true for coalitions that partisans
prefer the most. This leads to substantial variation in the perception
of coalition policy platforms. An important distinction between
party and coalition policy positions is how information costs impact
on the voters' uncertainty. While political knowledge decreases the
voters' uncertainty for party policy positions, we ﬁnd no consistent
effect of political knowledge on the voters' uncertainty when
evaluating coalition policy positions.
These ﬁndings have important consequences for our under-
standing of vote choices. As we know from research on parties and
candidates, variation in voter perceptions of party policy positions
due to contrast and assimilation effects affects vote choices (Calvo
et al., 2014). A similar argument can be made for spatial models
when voters consider policy outcomes and policy compromises
under coalition governments. Moreover, voters' uncertainty about
policy options affects which parties and candidates voters prefer.
While some argue that voter uncertainty is detrimental to the
parties' electoral performance (Shepsle, 1972; Bartels, 1986;
Alvarez, 1997), others ﬁnd that ambiguity actually helps political
actors in attracting votes (Tomz and van Houweling, 2009; Rovny,
2012; Somer-Topcu, forthcoming). Following outcome-centric
theories of vote choice, we can extend this research to analyse
whether variation in voters' uncertainty about future coalition al-
ternatives affects their electoral decisions.
Moreover, our ﬁndings have broader implications for how voters
perceive coalition bargaining and policy positions. While partisans
tend to align the position of the coalition with their own party's
policy position, coalition politics involves power-sharing and policy
compromises that may differ from the voters' perceptions (Laver
and Shepsle, 1994; Warwick and Druckman, 2001). Voters with
optimistic expectations of coalition positions might be disap-
pointed when the coalition enters ofﬁce, and thus be more inclined
to punish their preferred parties when engaging in retrospective
voting. Especially for coalitions with the radical-right FP
vidual voter perceptions of coalition policy platforms vary
signiﬁcantly. Voters with more extreme policy preferences tend to
emphasize the inﬂuence of the radical right, while supporters of
moderate centre-left and centre-right parties believe in more
centrist coalition policy positions. The actual policy output of these
coalitions should thus leave some of their voters dissatisﬁed with
their vote choice.
There are various ways in which these ﬁndings can be explored
further in future research. For one, issue statements over the course
of an election campaign have been shown to have clarifying effects
(e.g. Franklin, 1991). Similar patterns may be observed in connec-
tion with coalition signals. It would also be interesting to study how
explicit pre-electoral commitments (Golder, 2005, 2006) affect
campaign learning about coalition policy positions. Our ﬁndings
suggest that political knowledge helps voters to decrease uncer-
tainty when placing the SP
OVP coalition (see also Meffert and
Gschwend, 2012), but there is no such effect for other coalition
governments. This difference could be attributed to the incumbent
status of the SP
OVP coalition. Other coalition options in our
analysis are potential policy alternatives and all voters have to
combine and weigh information on party platforms. Pre-electoral
coalitions could lower the voters' uncertainty and thus help
knowledgeable voters to form reasonable expectations of these
coalitions' policy positions. This is something we cannot test
empirically given data from one election where such strong com-
mitments were not made. Yet, pre-electoral coalitions may have a
strong impact on voter uncertainty in another electoral context.
This work was supported by the FWF (Austrian Science Fund)
under grant number S10903-G11. We are particularly indebted to
Thomas Gschwend and Markus Wagner for their support and
feedback on previous versions of the manuscript. We also thank
two anonymous reviewers, the panellists at the 2014 European
Political Science Association (EPSA) conference, Edinburgh, and the
research seminar at the Department of Government, University of
Vienna, for helpful comments and suggestions.
Appendix. Regression tables
Perceptual bias and uncertainty in policy positions (SP
O Greens SP
O partisan 0.646*** (0.184) 0.329 (0.223) 0.743*** (0.202)
OVP partisan 0.027 (0.152) -0.428* (0.183) 0.207 (0.166)
O partisan 0.436** (0.168) 1.017*** (0.200) 0.852*** (0.180)
Green partisan 1.095*** (0.363) 0.776 (0.448) 1.145*** (0.408)
Coalition preference 0.074*** (0.022) 0.097*** (0.026) 0.123*** (0.024)
O partisanXCoalition preference 0.159*** (0.033) 0.173*** (0.040) 0.211*** (0.036)
OVP partisanXCoalition preference 0.031 (0.043) 0.141*** (0.051) 0.103* (0.046)
O partisanXCoalition preference 0.046 (0.057) 0.177** (0.067) 0.305*** (0.060)
Green partisanXCoalition preference 0.178*** (0.050) 0.230*** (0.061) 0.279*** (0.055)
Constant 3.497*** (0.100) 2.476*** (0.119) 2.896*** (0.107)
Political knowledge 0.043*** (0.009) <0.001 (0.009) 0.015 (0.008)
Constant 0.686*** (0.044) 0.671*** (0.043) 0.503*** (0.042)
Log likelihood 6669.985
Note: Standard errors in parentheses; * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001.
T.M. Meyer, D. Strobl / Electoral Studies 41 (2016) 80e91 89
Perceptual bias and uncertainty in policy positions (SP
O partisan 0.224 (0.216) 0.675*** (0.210) 0.139 (0.175)
OVP partisan 0.256 (0.226) 0.793*** (0.221) 0.262 (0.182)
O partisan 0.615*** (0.189) 0.621*** (0.184) 0.890*** (0.153)
Green partisan 0.573** (0.211) 0.985*** (0.207) 0.279 (0.172)
Coalition preference 0.024 (0.021) 0.033 (0.021) 0.026 (0.017)
O partisanXCoalition preference 0.011 (0.035) 0.048 (0.034) 0.052 (0.028)
OVP partisanXCoalition preference 0.001 (0.037) 0.044 (0.036) 0.059 (0.029)
O partisanXCoalition preference 0.052 (0.050) 0.120* (0.049) 0.104* (0.040)
Green partisanXCoalition preference 0.146*** (0.048) 0.095* (0.047) 0.084* (0.039)
Constant 3.669*** (0.108) 5.817*** (0.105) 4.970*** (0.087)
Political knowledge 0.042*** (0.009) 0.037*** (0.009) 0.030*** (0.009)
Constant 0.686*** (0.045) 0.636*** (0.044) 0.414*** (0.043)
Log likelihood 5743.289
Note: Standard errors in parentheses; * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001.
Perceptual bias and uncertainty in policy positions (SP
O partisan 0.343** (0.127) 0.347* (0.158) 0.103 (0.135)
OVP partisan 0.401*** (0.135) 0.135 (0.168) 0.754*** (0.143)
O partisan 1.184*** (0.216) 0.316 (0.267) 1.198*** (0.223)
Green partisan 0.121 (0.144) 1.044*** (0.180) 0.701*** (0.155)
Coalition preference 0.058* (0.023) 0.168*** (0.029) 0.094*** (0.024)
O partisanXCoalition preference 0.084* (0.037) 0.008 (0.046) 0.001 (0.039)
OVP partisanXCoalition preference 0.075 (0.049) 0.099 (0.060) 0.115* (0.051)
O partisanXCoalition preference 0.164*** (0.040) 0.147*** (0.050) 0.288*** (0.042)
Green partisanXCoalition preference 0.081 (0.073) 0.171 (0.091) 0.088 (0.077)
Constant 3.917*** (0.086) 8.270*** (0.107) 5.667*** (0.090)
Political knowledge 0.043*** (0.009) 0.034*** (0.009) 0.007 (0.009)
Constant 0.681*** (0.045) 0.859*** (0.045) 0.502*** (0.045)
Log likelihood 6895.303
Note: Standard errors in parentheses; * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001.
Perceptual bias and uncertainty in policy positions (
O partisan 0.269* (0.124) 0.247 (0.157) 0.455*** (0.149)
OVP partisan 0.151 (0.156) 0.449* (0.197) 0.428* (0.187)
O partisan 1.151*** (0.278) 0.626 (0.350) 1.466*** (0.331)
Green partisan 0.537*** (0.142) 0.903*** (0.180) 0.756*** (0.172)
Coalition preference 0.098*** (0.022) 0.206*** (0.027) 0.172*** (0.026)
O partisanXCoalition preference 0.056 (0.043) 0.067 (0.054) 0.114* (0.051)
OVP partisanXCoalition preference 0.183*** (0.034) 0.158*** (0.043) 0.196*** (0.041)
O partisanXCoalition preference 0.194*** (0.045) 0.226*** (0.056) 0.371*** (0.053)
Green partisanXCoalition preference 0.110 (0.081) 0.214* (0.102) 0.253* (0.097)
Constant 5.955*** (0.086) 8.402*** (0.108) 6.898*** (0.103)
Political knowledge 0.034*** (0.009) 0.027*** (0.009) 0.011 (0.009)
Constant 0.624*** (0.044) 0.824*** (0.043) 0.695*** (0.043)
Log likelihood 6878.639
Note: Standard errors in parentheses; * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001.
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