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Policy Preferences and Policy Legitimacy After Referendums: Evidence from the Brexit Negotiations

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How do votes in direct democratic ballots translate into policy preferences about future outcomes and affect the perceived legitimacy of those outcomes? This article examines these questions in the context of sovereignty referendums: specifically, the 2016 referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU). While the referendum result gave the British government a mandate for Britain leaving the EU, it did not provide any firm guidance as to the kind of Brexit that voters would prefer and consider legitimate. To examine the perceived desirability and legitimacy of different Brexit outcomes, we conducted a nationally representative conjoint experiment measuring attitudes towards different possible negotiation outcomes. Our findings show that ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters were highly divided over what they wanted from Brexit on salient negotiation issues, but also that most voters did not regard any possible outcome as legitimate.
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Vol.:(0123456789)
Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09639-w
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ORIGINAL PAPER
Policy Preferences andPolicy Legitimacy After
Referendums: Evidence fromtheBrexit Negotiations
SaraB.Hobolt1 · JamesTilley2· ThomasJ.Leeper1
Published online: 10 August 2020
© The Author(s) 2020
Abstract
How do votes in direct democratic ballots translate into policy preferences about
future outcomes and affect the perceived legitimacy of those outcomes? This article
examines these questions in the context of sovereignty referendums: specifically, the
2016 referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU). While the
referendum result gave the British government a mandate for Britain leaving the EU,
it did not provide any firm guidance as to the kind of Brexit that voters would pre-
fer and consider legitimate. To examine the perceived desirability and legitimacy of
different Brexit outcomes, we conducted a nationally representative conjoint experi-
ment measuring attitudes towards different possible negotiation outcomes. Our find-
ings show that ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters were highly divided over what they
wanted from Brexit on salient negotiation issues, but also that most voters did not
regard any possible outcome as legitimate.
Keywords Brexit· Conjoint experiment· Referendums· Direct democracy·
Legitimacy· Policy preferences
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (https ://doi.org/10.1007/s1110
9-020-09639 -w) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
* Sara B. Hobolt
s.b.hobolt@lse.ac.uk
James Tilley
james.tilley@politics.ox.ac.uk
Thomas J. Leeper
thosjleeper@gmail.com
1 London School ofEconomics andPolitical Science, London, UK
2 University ofOxford, Oxford, UK
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Introduction
Referendums are increasingly used as a means of deciding important constitutional
matters (Matsusaka 2005; Tolbert and Smith 2006; Hobolt 2009; Mendez and Ger-
mann 2018). They give citizens an opportunity to have a direct say on fundamen-
tal political questions. Yet the simple binary nature of most referendum ballots also
means that complex policy problems are often reduced to stark either/or choices
(Setälä 1999; Bowler and Donovan 2002; Rose 2019). This is a particular issue in
sovereignty referendums, where a decision to reallocate powers between two territo-
ries may be followed by protracted negotiations about the future of the relationship.
Policymakers are thus given a difficult challenge: how to translate the outcome of
a dichotomous vote choice into policy which involves difficult political trade-offs.
While there is a large literature on voting behavior in referendums, we know far less
about how such vote choices map onto preferences for these future policy outcomes.
We examine this issue in the context of the 2016 referendum on British member-
ship of the European Union (EU), a sovereignty referendum in which British voters
took the historic decision to be the first member state to exit the EU.1 While the
narrow vote in favor of Britain leaving the EU (‘Brexit’) gave the British govern-
ment a democratic mandate to exit, it was less obvious what this mandate meant in
terms of the final political settlement. The post-Brexit landscape could have looked
very close to the status quo of EU membership or could have involved a much more
dramatic shift away from the previous legal, political and trading relationship with
the EU (Richards etal. 2018). This is because the British government’s negotiations
on the relationship between the UK and the EU involved an array of complex trade-
offs on questions of immigration, border security, trade, citizens’ rights and budget-
ary contributions to the EU. None of these issues featured on the referendum ballot
paper, nor were these issues for which there was a clear policy mandate from either
of the official referendum campaigns. A burgeoning body of literature has examined
the determinants of voting behavior in the Brexit referendum (Goodwin and Heath
2016; Hobolt 2016; Vasilopoulou 2016; Becker et al 2017; Clarke and Goodwin
2017; Curtice 2017; Evans and Menon 2017; Ford and Goodwin 2017; Colantone
and Stanig 2018; Fisher and Renwick 2018) and in earlier EU referendums else-
where (Franklin etal 1995; Garry etal 2005; Hobolt 2009; Walter etal. 2018), but
we know far less about attitudes towards policy changes after the vote.2 From the
perspective of democratic legitimacy, this raises two important questions. What do
people want after an outcome in a sovereignty referendum that breaks with the status
quo: what are their policy preferences? And what are people willing to accept after
the vote: which outcomes do they think are legitimate?
1 Britain is the first member state to leave the EU. However, Greenland, an autonomous nation within
the Kingdom of Denmark, voted in a referendum to leave the EU in 1982, by a similarly narrow margin
of 53 per cent, and then left in 1985.
2 One important exception is Richards etal (2018). They present data from an online panel study about
preferences towards ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’ Brexit.
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To isolate public preferences and perceptions of legitimacy about the outcome
of Brexit, we ran a survey experiment on a nationally representative sample of UK
adults in late April 2017. This was a month after Britain initiated the process to exit
the EU, but before any actual negotiations began. Specifically, we conducted a high-
dimensional factorial (conjoint) experiment. This type of design allows researchers
to uncover the relative influence of different factors in how people make decisions
over bundled outcomes (Jasso 2006; Hainmueller et al 2014; Auspurg and Hinz
2015; Leeper et al. 2020). Crucially, we measured both the British public’s pref-
erences towards the outcome of the Brexit process as well as their views of what
outcomes were legitimate. We then tested how people’s views were shaped by their
own vote in the referendum. Our findings show that there were distinct differences
in preferences between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ on the key issues that were up
for negotiation. We also find that neither side considered any of the available policy
outcomes as adequately respecting the vote. This implies that the reality of policy
making following some referendums may not live up to people’s expectations, even
for those on the winning side. It also means that while sovereignty referendum votes
may be regarded as legitimate, the eventual policy outcome may not have the same
legitimacy.
In what follows, we first motivate the question of policy preferences in the wake
of the Brexit vote with a discussion of the literature on referendums and public opin-
ion about policy. We then discuss the design of our study and present the results.
Finally, we draw some conclusions about how our results should affect our under-
standing of the consequences of sovereignty referendums.
Referendum Votes andPolicy Outcomes
Citizens are given a direct say on fundamental constitutional issues, such as the ter-
ritorial contours of the nation, more often than ever before (Mendez and Germann
2018). In Europe, referendums are increasingly used to decide a country’s relation-
ship with the EU (Hobolt 2009; Rose 2019). Yet, direct democracy remains con-
troversial. Most citizens like it: evidence from the Europe-wide European Election
Study shows that 63% of people favor a direct vote on EU treaties (Van Egmond
etal. 2011; Rose and Borz 2013). Scholars are often more skeptical about referen-
dums, however. While some have emphasized the advantages of direct democracy
(Setälä 1999; Torgler 2005; Smith 2009), others have focused on potentially unde-
sirable consequences for minority rights (Bowler etal. 1998; Gerber 1999; Broder
2000; Ellis 2002; Butler and Ranney 1978; Gamble 1997) and on the inability of
voters to make competent decisions given the influence of special interests (Magleby
1984; Lupia 1994; Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Hobolt 2009). Whether good or
bad, referendums are clearly consequential. In the US, direct democracy has led to
differences between states in tax and spending policies (Matsusaka 2004; Feld and
Matsusaka 2004) as well as in other non-economic policy domains such as crimi-
nal punishment (Gerber 1999). In the EU, referendums have often had unintended
and ‘elite-defying’ consequences for governments, resulting in the delay, and even
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rejection of, intergovernmental treaties (Hobolt 2009; Hooghe and Marks 2009;
Walter etal. 2018).
Nonetheless, little attention has been paid to the question of how votes in referen-
dums map onto preferences towards the ensuing policy outcomes. Instead, research
has focused on the paradox that policies mandated by a direct democratic vote are
often passed and implemented by representative institutions which were originally
opposed to the policy outcome (Gerber 1999; Gerber etal. 2004) or on the effects
of direct democracy on political support more generally (Marien and Kern 2018).
However, this research does not address the question of how voters view the policy
outcomes that follow referendums.
Yet this question is both normatively and empirically important, especially in
cases where voters are offered only a dichotomous choice over a set of interlinked
policy questions.
Of course, this choice is no less complex in representative democratic processes,
when citizens are asked to cast their vote for parties, or candidates, that offer bundles
of policy positions. But these processes are not fully analogous for two important
reasons. First, at a general election policy proposals are set out explicitly in party
and candidate manifestos. By contrast, those engaged in referendum campaigns are
not required to set out any detailed policy proposals on how to implement the ref-
erendum result. This is a particular problem in “sovereignty referendums”, that is
direct popular votes on a reallocation of sovereignty between at least two territorial
centers (Mendez and Germann 2018). Examples include referendums on EU mem-
bership (such as the Brexit vote) and secession referendums, such as the independ-
ence referendums in Quebec (narrowly rejected by the electorate in 1995), Scotland
(rejected by the electorate in 2014) and Catalonia (declared unconstitutional by the
Constitutional Court of Spain in 2017). Unlike more narrowly-focused single-issue
referendums that amend specific constitutional articles, such as the same-sex and
abortion referendums in Ireland, sovereignty referendums are often3 “open-ended”
in that they offer no detailed blueprint for the future relationship between the seced-
ing state and the rest of the remaining territorial unit. As a consequence, the man-
date for the policy discussions that follow on from such sovereignty referendums
is unclear. Indeed, in the Brexit referendum, the government (which advocated a
Remain vote) explicitly refused to engage in the question of what would happen if
the Leave side won, and the politicians campaigning in favor of Leave were split
on key questions of what a post-Brexit Britain would look like (Eleftheriadis 2017;
Menon and Fowler 2016).4
The second difference is that after a general election, those elected can be held to
account if they are perceived to have broken their promises or if voters have a change
of heart. But while referendums tend to decide significant constitutional issues, they
3 Sovereignty referendums are not always open-ended as voters can be asked to vote on comprehensive
negotiated bundles. For example, the 1998 referendum held in Northern Ireland gave voters the chance to
vote for or against the already negotiated Good Friday Agreement.
4 To a lesser extent, those campaigning for Remain were also divided on what would happen if their side
won. It was certainly unclear from different Remain campaigners’ rhetoric whether a Remain vote would
mean that Britain became more, or less, integrated with the rest of the EU over the medium term.
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
do not provide the scheduled opportunity for a re-run that voters are familiar with in
an ordinary electoral cycle. There is no clear point at which representatives can be
held to account for policy outcomes. This is not to say that referendums are never
re-run, they are, but voters do not know if, and when, that re-run will happen. At the
point of the vote, referendums in most democracies appear to be one-shot opportuni-
ties to make a dichotomous choice, often with limited information about the policy
change that follows.5 It is thus critical to know how the public forms opinions about
the policy implemented by the winning majority, and to what extent pre-referendum
divisions drive those opinions. Equally, it is also important to know whether those
policy outcomes are considered legitimate by people on both sides of the referen-
dum divide.
The Brexit referendum provides an apposite case study of policy preferences
and legitimacy perceptions following a direct democratic vote. 52% of voters voted
Leave, and politicians on both sides agreed to respect the result in the immediate
aftermath of the vote. However, the result provided limited guidance as to what kind
of Brexit the public wanted: the option favored by a majority in the referendum may
have been ‘Leave’, but the range of outcomes contained within ‘Leave’ immediately
after the referendum was large. Brexit could have implied various different types of
settlement (Eleftheriadis 2017; Richards etal 2018). At one extreme, Britain could
have left the EU without a formal withdrawal deal or any agreement on future trade
relations: a so-called ‘no deal’ option. At the other extreme, Britain could have
stayed part of the European Single Market and Customs Union, accepted the contin-
ued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and allowed freedom of movement
into and out of Britain: a so-called ‘soft Brexit’.
Our aim is to examine not only how the referendum vote is related to preferences
over the Brexit outcome, but also to address whether voters considered different
policy outcomes a legitimate consequence of the referendum result. We expect that
differences over the preferred Brexit outcome will reflect differences in referendum
vote choice, as these differences of opinion drove citizens’ vote choices in the first
place. In other words, we expect that policy preferences are correlated with referen-
dum vote choice, with Leavers preferring a harder Brexit and Remainers favoring a
softer Brexit. We thus expect these differences to be related in a meaningful way to
the salient issues raised during the referendum campaign. Specifically, there is con-
siderable evidence that the policy issues of immigration and sovereignty were core
elements of the Leave campaign, while the Remain campaign emphasized the eco-
nomic risks of Brexit (Menon and Fowler 2016; Clarke and Goodwin 2017; Evans
and Menon 2017). These factors were also key attitudinal drivers of people’s vote
choices (Hobolt 2016; Evans and Tilley 2017; Clarke and Goodwin 2017; Curtice
2017; Fisher and Renwick 2018). Consequently, to the extent that vote choices are
correlated with preferences for specific policy trade-offs, we expect that Leavers
5 As a result of this inherent uncertainty, many have argued that referendum voters have a status quo
bias due to risk aversion (LeDuc and Pammett 1995; Christin etal. 2002). Nonetheless, there are numer-
ous examples of voters favoring proposals to change the status quo (Hobolt 2009; Mendez and Germann
2018).
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were more likely to prefer policy outcomes that restrict immigration and strengthen
Britain’s legal sovereignty. In contrast, Remain voters were likely to prefer outcomes
that facilitate continued free trade with the European Union.
However, we are not only interested in which policy options Leavers and Remain-
ers prefer, but also whether they consider such policy outcomes legitimate. Legit-
imacy refers to the public acceptance of political authority. In a well-functioning
representative democracy, citizens will consider a democratically elected govern-
ment and its policies legitimate even if they did not vote for a party that forms the
government (Anderson etal. 2005). In direct democracy, however, the authority of
policy outcomes is not derived from elections, but from the referendum vote. But to
what extent is there “losers’ consent” after referendums? That is, do voters on the
losing side respect the outcome of the vote and accept the resulting policy outcomes
as reflecting the authority of the referendum? We know that there is a gap between
winners and losers in political support following both elections and referendums
(Anderson etal. 2005; Esaiasson 2011; Marien and Kern 2018), but, in this paper,
we focus specifically on the legitimacy of policy outcomes, rather than general lev-
els of political support. We expect that many voters, both Leavers and Remainers,
will have had misgivings about the legitimacy of the possible Brexit outcomes when
seen as sets of policies. As discussed, referendums rarely force the two sides to pre-
sent bundles of policies in a manifesto. In open-ended sovereignty referendums, the
inherent future policy trade-offs after the referendum are therefore less immediately
visible to voters than they would be after a general election. Equally, referendums
are not re-run at regular intervals, unlike regular general elections, which may lead
to a further lack of perceived legitimacy. Overall, we therefore expect that most vot-
ers, on both the winning and losing sides, will not consider the outcomes they are
presented with as legitimate. In the ensuing sections, we examine these expectations
empirically.
Methods
Measurement of preferences over multifaceted objects of evaluation, like Brexit,
is a difficult task. Traditional approaches to public opinion research tend to entail
the measurement of preferences over outcomes as a whole (e.g. support for Brexit
per se), measurement of often vague variations on that outcome (e.g. support for
something simply labelled a ‘soft Brexit’ outcome), or the measurement of stated
preferences over multiple, isolated features (e.g. separate questions measuring pref-
erences over immigration and trade policy). Each of these approaches has significant
limitations. The first two say little about why the public prefers particular outcomes
over others. The second also relies on survey respondents making inferences about
the meaning of specific terms. And while the third approach measures attitudes
towards specific aspects of an outcome, it does not force people to make the trade-
offs between types of outcome that need to be made. Without being forced to choose
among options, we cannot judge the relative importance to people of different fea-
tures of any outcome.
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To overcome these limitations, we rely on a conjoint experimental design. Bor-
rowed from marketing research, where it is used to study purchasing decisions, this
methodology has recently been used in public opinion research to study complex
opinion formation processes such as support for immigration policies (Bansak etal
2016; Hainmueller and Hopkins 2015), voting for candidates (Hainmueller et al
2014) and preferences for labor market reform (Gallego and Marx 2017). In a con-
joint study, participants are shown a series of pairs of vignettes that vary accord-
ing to a determined set of features, with combinations of features randomly varied.
Respondents then select which of each pair they prefer. Rather than asking people
directly about each separate feature, their discrete choices reveal the acceptability
of different features. In this case that means that people have to engage directly with
the difficult trade-offs involved in the negotiations.6 This allows us to make com-
parisons between respondents’ evaluations of different bundles in order to detect the
relative importance of individual features without asking them directly and without
having to use any politicized labels such as ‘hard Brexit’, ‘soft Brexit’, or ‘no deal’.
Respondents were not asked to adjudicate on whether a ‘free trade deal’ or ‘freedom
of movement’ were desirable, but rather make a choice between scenarios that use
precise language to specify different kinds of arrangements.
In our design, we asked people 10months after the referendum to consider pairs
of Brexit outcome scenarios that varied along eight dimensions. Respondents were
told: ‘We are interested in your opinions about possible agreements between Britain
and the EU regarding Britain’s exit from the EU and future relationship.’ They were
then presented with a pair of alternative outcomes of the Brexit negotiations that
varied along eight dimensions and asked to choose which of the two alternatives
they preferred. The eight dimensions were carefully selected to cover the full breadth
of the negotiations at that stage and were fully randomized. They used terminol-
ogy drawn directly from statements of the negotiating parties, the UK government
and the European Commission (UK Department for Exiting the European Union
2017; UK Prime Minister 2017a; UK Prime Minister 2017b; European Commission
2017). These eight dimensions were: (1) immigration controls, (2) legal sovereignty,
(3) rights of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, (4) ongoing EU
budget payments, (5) one-off ‘divorce’ payment, (6) trade terms, (7) status of the
Ireland/Northern Ireland border, and (8) the timeline for Brexit. The different levels
of the dimensions were designed in such a way as to range between the two most
extreme negotiation outcomes: a very ‘soft’ Brexit with continued British member-
ship of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union and a ‘no deal’ scenario with no
agreement on a future trade deal.7 A screenshot of an example pairing is shown in
6 This design also means that people cannot infer how different aspects of negotiations might be tied to
others. For example, if we simply asked people about their preferences about trade policy they may well
make assumptions about what that might mean for immigration policy. In the conjoint design, we provide
information about both aspects (as well as many others), thereby making any trade-off explicit rather than
implicit.
7 These choices are deliberately presented in terms of policy options, rather than the outcomes that result
from the policy. For example, the trade terms options refer to tariffs and barriers to trade, not the wider
economic consequences of any trade deal. This is important, because we do not want to prime people
with potential outcome information. Just as asking people their opinion on the death penalty does not
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Fig.1. Further details about the design and the full list of all the levels of the eight
dimensions are provided in the Supplementary Material.
Our analysis focuses on two outcome questions, one measuring preferences and
one measuring the perceived legitimacy of each bundled outcome. The first ques-
tion asked respondents simply: ‘Which of these two outcomes do you prefer?’.8 To
capture policy legitimacy, we ask people to consider which policy bundles ‘respect’
the referendum outcome: ‘Which option do you think would respect the result of
the referendum? [Option A, Option B, Both, Neither]’. We decompose answers to
this second question into dichotomous measures of perceived legitimacy for each
outcome: ‘neither’ means both outcomes are coded as zero and ‘both’ means that
both outcomes are coded as 1. It is worth noting that this is a specific measure of
policy legitimacy post-referendum rather than the legitimacy of the referendum pro-
cess itself. In that sense, it does not directly address whether people thought the
referendum was procedurally fair. Although this is, rightly, used as the key measure
of perceived legitimacy (see, for example, Esaiasson etal. 2012, 2019; Marien and
Fig. 1 Screenshot of choice given to respondents
Footnote 7 (continued)
involve priming people with information about most criminologists’ views of the effect of the death pen-
alty on crime rates, here we do not prime people with most economists’ views of the impact of different
trade deals on economic growth.
8 We also asked respondents to separately rate their support for each of the two outcomes on continuous
scales. The results are virtually identical and are reported in the Supplementary Materials.
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
Kern 2018) of referendums, here we are interested in the legitimacy of the policy
outcomes that follow the referendum.
Consistent with methods proposed by Hainmueller etal (2014), we regress our
first outcome measure on indicators for each possible level of each policy feature,
clustering standard errors by respondent. We can then interpret our results as a set of
average marginal component effect (AMCE) estimates. These indicate the marginal
effect of each feature level on support for a particular outcome deal. This conveys
the degree to which a given feature increases or decreases support for a bundle as a
whole relative to some baseline scenario. In our case, we treat a ‘no deal’ exit of the
EU as the baseline.9 We interpret this to mean that there would be no UK-EU trade
deal, full legal independence of Britain from EU law and the European Court of Jus-
tice, no one-off or continuing payments to the EU budget, full control over immigra-
tion with no continuing EU immigration, the loss of rights of EU citizens currently
residing in the UK, and a full (customs and passport) border between Ireland and
Northern Ireland (UK Department for Exiting the European Union 2017; UK Prime
Minister 2017b). In general, positive AMCEs thus indicate support for softer Brexit
outcomes and negative values indicate opposition to those scenarios.10
We also present marginal means to illustrate differences between Leavers and
Remainers in both their views of outcomes and the legitimacy of those outcomes.
The marginal mean is simply an estimate of the average support for scenarios con-
taining a given feature. The reason for the shift in statistic is twofold: first, marginal
means allow us to convey differences in preferences between respondents for all
feature levels, rather than differences in feature effects relative to a baseline feature
level. Second, by doing so we avoid misinterpreting AMCEs due to the arbitrary
selection of a baseline category, especially when comparing results for Leavers and
Remainers (Leeper etal. 2020).
We recruited respondents through YouGov’s online UK Omnibus panel. This
draws respondents from an online panel of approximately 800,000 people to con-
struct a quota sample representative of the British public with respect to age, sex,
education and region which is then weighted to match the British adult population.
We surveyed a total of 3,293 respondents between April 26th and April 27th in
2017. Each respondent was shown five pairs of outcomes, which translates into a
dataset of 32,930 (2 × 5 × 3293) evaluations of outcomes.
10 We refer to the results of our conjoint analysis as demonstrations of ‘preferences’ meaning how people
would choose policies were those policies composed of the features we included in the experiment, as is
conventional in the conjoint analysis literature. A recent working paper shows that AMCEs do not, how-
ever, necessarily correspond to the rank ordering of citizens’ preferences over individual policy features
because ‘the sign and magnitude of the AMCE depend upon the features included in the experimen-
tal design even though individual preferences over these features remain constant across experiments’
(Abramson etal 2019).
9 Any level of any factor can be chosen as the baseline. While this has no effect on the statistical inter-
pretation, it can superficially convey slightly different impressions of the data. For example, if the condi-
tion with the highest support is the baseline, all effects will be negative, whereas if the condition with the
median level of support is chosen, some effects will be positive while others will be negative.
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Results
Figure2 presents the preference AMCE estimates for each feature of different areas
relative to the no deal baseline. The lines around the point estimates are 95% con-
fidence intervals. A positive AMCE indicates that respondents would, on average,
be more likely to support a deal that had that feature compared to the baseline. For
example, the AMCE for a timeline of 2025 is 0.03 (se = 0.01), indicating that
respondents would be about 3% points less likely to support any deal with Brit-
ain leaving the EU in 2025 compared to leaving in 2019 (the baseline reference
category).
The figure shows three clear patterns. First, some facets of a harder Brexit were
popular in 2017. On average, people liked the idea of greater control over immi-
gration, greater British sovereignty and smaller one-off payments to settle Britain’s
Fig. 2 Average marginal component effects (AMCEs) measuring outcome support for features of Brexit
outcomes (full sample)
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
outstanding fiscal obligations to the EU. It is interesting that some of the least pre-
ferred features overall were those that are a required part of EU membership: by
far the least popular immigration and legal sovereignty options were the status quo.
Second, it is also the case that some parts of a softer Brexit were popular. On aver-
age, people preferred fewer trade barriers and the continued protection of EU citi-
zens’ rights to stay in Britain. While the trade features seem less important than sov-
ereignty and immigration, there was very strong support for a deal that allowed EU
citizens to stay in Britain. Third, some features of the settlement seem less important
in their impact. On average, the Irish border and the timing of the UK’s exit appear
to have mattered hardly at all to the public in 2017, and access to EU programs was
popular only if that access cost very little.
Next, we want to test our expectation that preferences for policy outcomes mirror
the referendum vote choices. Figure3 therefore presents results of the experiment
Fig. 3 Marginal means measuring support for features of Brexit outcomes, separately for Leave and
Remain voters. Note The gray vertical bar represents the grand mean for all respondents (0.5)
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
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separated by Leave and Remain voters, using a measure of vote choice which was
recorded immediately after the 2016 referendum.11 Figure3 presents these descrip-
tive estimates as marginal means. Given the forced choice design, the overall mean
is 0.5, indicated by the vertical gray line. When a marginal mean exceeds 0.5,
respondents favor scenarios with that feature more often than not, and when a mar-
ginal mean is below 0.5, respondents oppose scenarios with that feature more often
than not. Figure3 reveals some similarity in preferences among Leave and Remain
voters on some dimensions, but also considerable differences. For example, features
near the bottom of the graph appear to have been viewed similarly by both groups,
whereas those near the top of the figure—immigration, legal sovereignty, the rights
Fig. 4 Differences between Remainers and Leavers in marginal mean support for each feature of Brexit
outcomes
11 People who said that they did not vote, or were not eligible to vote, are thus not shown.
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
of EU nationals living in the UK, and ongoing budget payments—appear to have
been viewed rather differently by Leave and Remain voters.
Figure4 shows the differences in marginal means for both groups. Positive dif-
ferences indicate the features that Remain voters favor more than Leave voters and
negative differences indicate the features that Leave voters favor more than Remain
voters. There are few, if any, differences for some features. Leave and Remain voters
held fairly similar views on the timeline for Brexit to occur, trade policy, and the size
of the one-off payment. Remainers were slightly more likely to favor a longer time-
line, greater free trade and a bigger payment, but surprisingly these differences are
relatively small. It is particularly noteworthy that frictionless trade was not a distin-
guishing feature to the extent that might be expected, given the prominence that the
Remain campaign gave to the negative economic consequences of Brexit. However,
while the Remain campaign clearly put more emphasis on the economic aspects of
Brexit, both campaigns advocated loosely for continued ‘free trade’ with the Euro-
pean Union and this may explain why we do not observe great differences between
Leave and Remain voters.
On other features, however, there are clear differences in people’s preferences
depending on how they voted in 2016. In three areas, these differences are very
large. On immigration, full control was more popular with Leave voters than Remain
voters, whereas no control was substantially more popular among Remain voters
than Leave voters. Only 34% of Leavers favored the status quo, compared to 47% of
Remainers. When it comes to legal sovereignty from the European Court of Justice,
Leavers again disliked the status quo much more than Remainers although, as with
immigration, it is important to note that on sovereignty Remainers still preferred
a ‘harder’ Brexit outcome than the status quo. Finally, while Leavers were equally
likely to prefer policy outcome scenarios where EU citizens are required to leave
Britain (42% in favor) and scenarios where all EU citizens can stay indefinitely (43%
in favor), Remainers had very distinct preferences. Only 30% of scenarios which
involve EU citizens being required to leave were preferred by Remainers, but 60% of
scenarios with the status quo of all being allowed to stay found favor. On two other
issues the aggregate results in Fig. 2 also mask some heterogeneity. With regards
to the ongoing payment to the EU and EU programs, no access is regarded fairly
negatively by Remainers, but quite positively by Leavers. Similarly, Leavers’ most
preferred option on the Irish border (full passport and customs checks) was Remain-
ers’ least preferred option, while Remainers’ most preferred option (no passport and
no customs checks) was Leavers’ least preferred option.
What people wanted Brexit to mean therefore depended to a large extent on how
they voted in the referendum. Much of this is driven by the fact that many aspects
of the negotiation appear to have mattered more to Leavers than Remainers. Differ-
ences in preferences between levels were clearly greater for Leavers when it comes
to immigration and sovereignty, but also ongoing payments, the size of the one-off
payment, the Irish border, and the timeline. The exception is EU citizen rights. Here,
the different levels of the feature had much more effect on Remainers than Leavers.
We are not just interested in what outcomes people preferred, but also what
outcomes they thought legitimate. Figure5 compares marginal means for Remain
and Leave voters with regard to their views of what outcomes would respect the
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
1 3
referendum. Rather than being forced to choose, respondents were able to answer
that neither scenario was legitimate and many took that option. The first thing to
note here is that the overall mean is only just above 0.3. In fact, few scenarios, no
matter how configured, were seen as legitimate by a majority of people. This is an
important finding: no matter how one juggles the levels of each feature, there was
little perceived legitimacy on either side. Equally importantly, perceptions of legiti-
mate policy outcomes were less frequent among Leavers. For every possible value
of every feature, Remainers were more likely than Leavers to think profiles con-
taining that feature respected the referendum. The winners of the referendum were
harder to satisfy than the losers when it comes to the legitimacy of the final policy
outcome.
The second thing to note is that the features of the outcome mattered less to
Remainers than Leavers, but in many cases mattered in a similar way. For example,
Fig. 5 Marginal means of perceived outcome legitimacy, separately for Leave and Remain voters. Note
The gray vertical bar represents the grand mean for all respondents (0.5)
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853
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
on immigration everyone thought that greater control was a more legitimate out-
come, but a deal’s legitimacy was much more sensitive to the precise immigra-
tion policy involved for Leavers. This is also evident for sovereignty and to a lesser
extent trade, the timeline and the one-off payment. Leavers are simply more varied
in their assessments. They tended to say a Brexit package respected the referendum
when it contained features that, on average, they preferred (such as full immigration
control and full legal sovereignty) and thought that alternatives closer to the status
quo would not respect the outcome. Leave voters saw a clear story: their own group
preferences were the most legitimate interpretation of the referendum result. While
Remainers appear to acknowledge that many of the features that they personally dis-
liked may, in fact, respect the referendum result (the exception being EU citizens’
rights), the precise configuration more weakly affects their views of legitimacy.
The combination of these two results is striking. One expectation might be those
on the losing side would be more sensitive to the particular features of the deal, but
instead they acquiesced to the position that a wide range of policy bundles—vary-
ing from ‘no deal’ to the status quo—were equally likely to respect the referendum
result. Leavers, on the winning side of the referendum, saw all features as less legiti-
mate, but it is their own preferences that appear to drive perceptions of legitimacy:
perhaps unsurprisingly their own preferred scenario was the one that was seen to
best respect the referendum.
Conclusion
One of the challenges of direct democracy is that voters are given a binary choice on
issues that are often highly multifaceted. This is a particular problem in sovereignty
referendums, which account for nearly half of referendums around the world (But-
ler and Ranney 1994; Mendez and Germann 2018), as such referendums are often
open-ended, offering no clear blueprint for the complex future relationship between
two territorial units. Considering the popularity of referendums in modern democ-
racies today, it is important to know how to interpret the preferences expressed in
those referendums and whether policy decisions based on direct democracy are per-
ceived as legitimate. While there is a large literature exploring how people vote in
referendums, less attention has been paid to how those vote choices translate into
preferences about future policy outcomes. Are policy preferences aligned with vote
choices? And are the policy outcomes based on the referendum results considered as
legitimate by both winners and losers?
We examine these questions in the context of one prominent open-ended sover-
eignty referendum, namely the 2016 EU membership referendum in Britain. The
paper makes three distinct contributions. First, we make use of a conjoint experi-
ment to examine people’s preferences over the key policy decisions involved in the
Brexit settlement. Rather than asking people directly about each separate policy
feature, the conjoint design allows their discrete choices to reveal the acceptability
of different features. This means that people had to engage directly with the diffi-
cult trade-offs involved in the negotiations. We are therefore able to make compari-
sons between respondents’ evaluations of different bundles and assess the relative
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
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importance of individual decisions. This approach is ideally suited to analyzing pref-
erences towards complex policy-decisions that involve significant trade-offs, and our
paper presents an approach for how to study policy preferences in the aftermath of
direct democratic votes. Of course, if the ultimate policy alternatives are composed
of a different set of issue dimensions than those used in the study, further research
would be needed—a conjoint analysis can only tell us about decision making on a
task similar to the one used in the study (see Abramson etal 2019).
Second, given the immense political importance of Brexit to both Britain and the
EU, we also contribute valuable insights into the public’s view of this historic deci-
sion. The 2016 referendum provided a mandate to leave the EU but did not bring a
high degree of clarity to the question of what the British public might want from
Brexit. Our results have revealed that during the initial negotiation period there was
agreement among both Remainers and Leavers on some areas of the settlement.
Most voters shared preferences for a settlement that ensured relatively frictionless
trade between the UK and the EU and avoided any large one-off payments to settle
Britain’s outstanding fiscal obligations to the EU.12 Nonetheless support for many
aspects of any negotiated settlement varied substantially according to how people
voted in the referendum. Deep-seated divisions remained over the issues of immi-
gration, legal sovereignty and EU citizens’ rights. In line with the literature on vote
choices in the referendum, we find that Leave voters were much more concerned
with ensuring an outcome that guaranteed immigration control and greater legal
sovereignty from the EU than those who voted Remain, who in turn cared more
about guaranteeing EU citizens’ right to stay in the UK.
Finally, our paper addresses a question with wider normative implications for the
study of direct democracy, and specifically open-ended sovereignty referendums:
whether policy outcomes resulting from the referendum were seen to respect the
outcome of the vote. Interestingly, we find that when facing actual policy bundles
rather than simply the Leave/Remain choice, levels of perceived policy legitimacy
are low among both Leavers and Remainers. It is not just that no policy bundle was
seen as legitimate by both Leavers and Remainers, but that there was no policy bun-
dle that could individually satisfy either group. Indeed, it is the winners of the ref-
erendum, Leave voters, who were particularly unlikely to perceive bundled policy
outcomes as legitimate. Among Remainers, there is a degree of “losers’ consent” as
they were more likely to accept any outcome as legitimate (Nadeau and Blais 1993;
Anderson etal 2005).
This suggests that direct democracy will not necessarily provide greater satis-
faction with democracy among winners in the long-term since they may not think
that the policies that emerge after referendums respect their vote. It also implies
that while referendums are generally popular with voters, there is a danger that both
winners and losers may end up less than satisfied with the eventual outcome. This
12 Some of these areas of agreement continued. Not least, and despite its prominence in elite debate, the
low level of importance attached to the Irish border by both Leavers and Remainers. For example, Fisher
(2019) argued that in March 2019 it remained “an issue that relatively few people in Britain have a clear
view on’.
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855
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Political Behavior (2022) 44:839–858
challenge is much greater in open-ended and high-stakes sovereignty referendums,
such as those on EU membership and secession, since there is often considerable
uncertainty about the policy consequences of the binary choice made in the poll-
ing booth. This contrasts with narrowly focused single-issue referendums which are
likely to offer much greater clarity on the policies stemming from the vote. It is thus
vital that future research should do more to explore voters’ preferences towards the
policy outcomes emanating from different types of direct democracy and how these
shape attitudes towards democracy itself.
Acknowledgements Previous versions of this article were presented at the University of Konstanz, the
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the EPOP annual conference in Nottingham and the European Politi-
cal Science Association annual conference in Milan. We are grateful to the participants at these events for
their comments and suggestions. We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the Political
Behavior editorial team for their constructive assessment and guidance. Any remaining errors and imper-
fections are our own.
Funding We are grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council (UK in a Changing Europe pro-
gramme) for their generous support of this research (ES/R000573/1).
Data availability All data is available at: https ://datav erse.harva rd.edu/datas et.xhtml ?persi
stent Id=doi:10.7910/DVN/EFXNL X.
Code Availability All code is available at: https ://datav erse.harva rd.edu/datas et.xhtml ?persi
stent Id=doi:10.7910/DVN/EFXNL X.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License,
which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as
you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Com-
mons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article
are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the
material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is
not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission
directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creat iveco mmons .org/licen
ses/by/4.0/.
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... However, many districts were extremely divided at the time of the referendum; approximately one-quarter of the electorate did not turn out to the polls. Demographic change (an important divide in this circumstance) had already shifted the electoral base by the time of the votes three years later, and new information as well as the details of the negotiated exit agreement could have changed voter opinions (Hobolt et al. 2020). For all these reasons, MPs might still have sought to pursue their constituencies' interests but at the same time felt that the result of the referendum in their district could not be considered a reliable signal in this regard . ...
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