When parties change their position, voters follow

How big a role do political parties actually play in shaping public opinion? Using unique data, researchers from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University have studied how voters’ opinions follow the party they support when the party suddenly changes its position on popular and well-established welfare schemes.   


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“During this corona pandemic, we’ve clearly seen how political parties can influence the opinions of citizens. Citizens are usually willing to follow policy proposals when they are supported by their own party. In Denmark, there’s largely been broad political support for the government's line, and a high degree of political consensus on how to handle the pandemic. This means that parties across the political spectrum have agreed to implement corona restrictions. That's why we also see a high degree of support from citizens for the government's policy," says Rune Slothuus, professor of political science at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University.

"The broad agreement between the parties helps ensure that coronavirus measures do not create as large a divide in society as we see elsewhere, not least in the US, where the Republican and Democratic parties - and their supporters - strongly disagree about the correct policy to handle the pandemic," says Professor Rune Slothuus.


In the real world   

He bases his remarks on his new research on the extent to which parties can influence their voters’ opinions on different political issues. Together with his colleague, Assistant Professor Martin Bisgaard from Aarhus BSS, he has examined the extent to which citizens listen to political parties, and to what extent their opinions towards political proposals are affected by the positions taken by political parties. They have written an article "How Political Parties Shape Public Opinion in the Real World", which has recently been published in the prestigious American Journal of Political Science.

Note the words 'in the Real World'. This is what is so special about the new research. Rune Slothuus and Martin Bisgaard have managed to investigate the effect by looking more closely at a real shift in opinion by parties and citizens in the real world – rather than using the controlled but also somewhat artificial experiments that the vast majority of previous studies in the field have applied. More specifically, they examined the issue of periods of unemployment benefits and early retirement pension when the Danish Liberal Party (and in the case of the unemployment benefits period, also the Danish People's Party) changed positions in 2010 and 2011.


This is a very significant shift in citizens’ opinions, bigger than many would expect, and bigger than we’ve seen in other surveys, 

Professor Rune Slothuus, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

At the right place and at the right time     

Researchers have to be both creative and lucky to manage this. First of all, there has to be a party that, from one day to the next, changes its position on an important issue. This does not happen very often. And when it does happen, it is often far too late for researchers to measure changes in people’s opinions, because this requires measuring the opinion of those same people before the party changed its position. So how did they succeed in capturing this interesting dynamic?

Rune Slothuus has been interested in the question of whether parties can influence public opinion for many years. In the period following the 2008 financial crisis, he thought that he might have an opportunity to investigate this through a real change in a party standpoint. He sensed that there would soon be a wide-ranging political debate on how to deal with the large deficits in public finances. The parties would probably have to come up with proposals to change some welfare schemes, and this made it obvious to ask a panel of citizens about their views on a wide range of welfare proposals that might be put on the political agenda. A representative sample of the population was asked about their views on a number of proposals before the political parties had suggested them.

"We were fortunate because we chose some policy proposals that the parties themselves also suggested. On the other hand, we were perhaps also rather clever because we thought carefully about what could happen realistically," says Rune Slothuus.


Shift in opinions on the early retirement pension and period of unemployment benefits   

In 2011, from one day to the next, the Danish Liberal Party changed its position on the early retirement pension when the chairman of the party, and then Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen proposed that it be abolished in his New Year's speech. The party also changed its position on the maximum length of an unemployment benefits period, which the center-right government then halved from four to two years supported by the Danish People’s Party and the Danish Social Liberal Party.

With the help of surveys of the same respondents, both before and after these changes in policy positions, the researchers' unique data show that citizens generally followed their party’s proposals on these two central and controversial issues in Danish politics.

In March and April 2010, support for cutting the unemployment benefit period by voters of the Danish People's Party and the Danish Liberal Party was 0.57 on a scale from 0 to 1. However, after the parties changed their position, voters’ policy support increased to 0.71. This represents an increase of 15 percentage points.

With regard to the early retirement pension, support among voters to abolish it increased by 17 percentage points after Lars Løkke Rasmussen's announcement. Before the party's change in position, support was at 0.69, but increased to 0.87 after the New Year's speech.

“This is a very significant shift in citizens’ opinions, bigger than many would expect, and bigger than we’ve seen in other surveys,” says Rune Slothuus.

The researchers can be quite certain that the opinion change is due to people changing their opinions and not their party, because they asked the same people throughout the survey. Furthermore, the voters of other parties maintained their opinions. Only voters for the Liberal Party and the Danish People's Party voters changed their opinions on these issues.


Who influences who in our democracy?   

The result shows that political parties have a significant ability to influence their voters’ opinions on policy issues, even for a well-established welfare scheme that is popular among the population.

"Parties can actually take the lead and propose how we can solve problems in society. If they do so, the population is willing to support them a long way down the road," says Rune Slothuus.

"Of course, this ability to influence voters means that party leaders have a special responsibility to think about the messages they send. Parties can both inform and manipulate citizens. For example, after the presidential election in the US, we’ve seen how President Donald Trump has managed to convince many of his Republican supporters that the election result is misleading, even though he hasn’t provided a shred of evidence to support that claim and despite both Democratic and the Republican election officials denying that there are any issues," adds Rune Slothuus.

This raises the question of what mechanism is actually at play here. Do citizens blindly follow parties or is the shift a result of parties informing voters about political issues? Rune Slothuus thinks it’s the latter. In his major ERC research project, he is doing more research on the political parties' possibilities to help citizens form political opinions on a more informed basis.