Danish voters are sore losers

New research shows that voters’ perception of Danish democracy is affected by whether they vote for a winning or a losing party. It is particularly striking that the losers are still less satisfied with democracy three years after an election.

06.05.2019 | MIA ULVGRAVEN


It seems that Danish voters have much the same attitude towards democracy as they have towards any good board game. When our preferred party loses, we become less satisfied with the game as such.

Three researchers from the University of Southern Denmark and Aarhus BSS have explored how voters in two municipal elections perceive democracy - and have linked the views of individual voters on democracy to whether or not the person would vote for the local mayor’s party.

Sune Welling Hansen, Robert Klemmensen and Søren Serritzlew conclude that in general, the losers are significantly more dissatisfied with democracy than the winners. In the study, winners are defined as supporters of the mayor’s party, while supporters of all other parties are seen as losers. The dissatisfaction is most significant among voters that have gone from being winners to losers. In other words, voters whose preferred party occupied the mayoral seat before the election, but lost it in the election.

“We knew that an election defeat affects how people perceive democracy, but we didn’t expect the dissatisfaction to be as distinct as it is. And especially not three years after an election,” says Søren Serritzlew, who is a professor of political science at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University.

"Denmark is one of the countries in the world where you would least expect to see this negative long-term effect on satisfaction"

Søren Serritzlew - professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

New study stands out by demonstrating long-term effect

The dissatisfaction among the losers is not surprising as such. Previous international studies have demonstrated a similar effect on the voters’ perception of democracy. However, the Danish study stands out by researching the long-term effect. In previous studies, voters were typically asked about their perception of democracy a few weeks after an election. In the Danish study, the researchers waited three years.

“It turns out that the effect of a defeat is persistent. It’s not just a passing feeling of dissatisfaction that disappears once the election posters have been removed and the new municipal councils have taken over. The effect lasts right up to the year of the next election. For this reason, we need to consider this factor if we want to understand what affects the voters’ satisfaction with democracy. Especially because the effect is almost purely negative. It isn’t outweighed by the winners of the election becoming more satisfied,” says Serritzlew.

Psychological theory may explain the losers’ dissatisfaction

The researchers not only studied the losers’ perception of democracy, but also the winners’ perception. Among the winners, a rather different effect can be observed.
“There’s a remarkable difference. There may be a slight positive effect among the winners, but it’s not strong enough for us to be able to conclude anything with certainty,” says Serritzlew.
As voters, we do not necessarily become more satisfied with democracy when our preferred party gains power. However, we clearly become more dissatisfied when the party loses power.
The new study does not offer a clear explanation of why an election defeat affects voters over time, while victory does not.
“This is something that we need to study more closely. A possible explanation can be found in psychology. From this field, we know that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure of gaining the same thing. Other studies show that voters are more susceptible to negative information than positive information. Quite simply because negative information may have much more dramatic consequences for an individual compared to positive information. For that reason, a person’s feelings might be stronger and more persistently negative when their party loses the election than when it wins,” says Serritzlew.
The voters in the study were asked what party they would vote for if an election were held the day after the interview. Therefore, the researchers do not know for certain what the voters actually voted in the two elections.
“Naturally, this creates some level of uncertainty, but we’ve conducted a robustness test where we looked exclusively at the voters who stated the same party in both surveys. Here, the results are the same as in the main conclusion,” says Serritzlew.

Losers’ dissatisfaction expected to be greater in other countries

One of the qualities of the new Danish study is that it is, in fact, Danish. The study has been carried out in a country where elections are conducted fairly, and where the election losers therefore have little reason to be dissatisfied with democracy.

“There are countries where the losers have good reason to be dissatisfied with the democracy or regime. However, Denmark is one of the countries in the world where you would least expect to see this negative long-term effect on satisfaction. All else being equal, this means that we will also see a negative effect in other countries if similar studies were conducted. And even though the effect is evident in Denmark, it may very well be even more significant in other countries,” Serritzlew estimates.

Furthermore, the researchers expect that the lower level of satisfaction with democracy will also apply to voters whose party loses a general election.

“The municipalities stand out by being very consensual. The level of conflict is usually low in Danish municipalities, and the losing parties have an unusually large influence on Danish municipal politics,” says Serritzlew.

About the study

  • The study is based on the municipal elections of 1998 and 2005.
  • The studies of the voters’ perception of democracy were conducted more than three years after each election.
  • The voters participating in the study were contacted by Gallup via telephone and also received a written survey. They were asked how they would vote if there was an election tomorrow. They were also asked how satisfied they were with the local democracy in their municipality on a scale from 0 to 10; how satisfied they were with the level of service in their municipality; and how satisfied they were with how the municipality had handled any current challenges.
  • The analysis is based on responses from 900 people who were interviewed in both 2001 and 2009 (as part of questionnaire surveys conducted by researchers Poul Erik Mouritzen and Ulrik Kjær).
  • The research is co-funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research.

Read the entire article here (Paywall may occur): ”Losers lose more than winners win: Asymmetrical effects of winning and losing in elections”