The impact of ideological consistency and valence on political parties’ incentives

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Political parties are strategic. They seek to win elections by balancing during campaigns critical aspects of their program, their implied policy proposals, and a candidate’s characteristics. Depending on what voters value most, parties may find it profitable to pivot their policy positions to the opposite side of the political spectrum or stay close to their core values. In BSE Working Paper 1383, “Ideological Consistency and Valence,” Enriqueta Aragonès and Dimitrios Xefteris propose a model explaining political parties’ incentives to flip their policy proposals and nominate candidates of lower perceived quality.

What Voters Care About Matters for Parties’ Strategies

The empirical literature on elections and political outcomes has extensively discussed the evidence on what may turn an election for one party or the other. Voters seem to not care only about the policy proposed by a candidate, but also about a candidate’s consistency with the values of the nominating party, and other non-policy characteristics of the candidate.

The interaction of policy and non-policy features in the political parties’ decision framework seems of utmost importance when considering a political competition theory. Following this idea, the authors are the first to build a model that considers the simultaneous feedback between two forces in the political arena: voters’ preferences for a consistent politician and valence asymmetries.

Implications on Polarization

The authors propose a model where voters care about three things: the policies proposed, the general image of the candidate, and how close the candidate is ideologically to a reference policy (i.e. her party’s values). They assume one of the candidates has a valence advantage, making him an ex-ante to be perceived as having better characteristics.

In this framework, as the voters care more about ideological consistency in a party’s agenda, the resulting level of polarization will be higher. In a nutshell, when voters place a more significant weight on the candidate being consistent with her reference policy, the candidates will refrain from proposing more centrist policies, thus driving voters to the extremes.

Interestingly, the degree of polarization in an election is not affected by changes in valence asymmetry. Imagine a candidate is seen as having better traits than the other; then he will propose policies closer to his opponent’s, while the disadvantaged candidate backs away. This leaves the level of polarization unchanged.

Nominating Higher-Quality Candidates Might Not Always Be the Best Choice

One novel finding is that whenever the voters’ policy preferences are highly uncertain, a party that cares about policy might be better off selecting a low-valence candidate. If the preferences for ideological consistency are high, it might be more likely that a low-valence candidate successfully proposes a policy closer to the parties’ program.

This aspect is a key implication of the model. There is a trade-off for parties in getting a better policy outcome and choosing a higher valence candidate who can find it more difficult to move the policy towards a more centrist alternative. This might explain why we see that during elections, the parties do not always nominate the best candidates in terms of quality.

The Role of Valence Asymmetries for Platform Flit-Flops

Another important finding is that valence asymmetries between candidates matter for their incentives to move away from their reference policies. That is, they have an impact on where the proposed policy ultimately falls into.

If these asymmetries are moderate, then the candidate with the advantage gets a greater incentive to move away from its reference policies and towards its opponents’, to get a more appealing outcome. Conversely, when valence asymmetries are large, the disadvantaged candidate has the incentive to pivot towards the other party’s policies to maintain some chances of getting elected.

This gives us a mechanism explaining when parties propose policies that seem far from their program during an election. Overall, the simultaneous role of a candidate’s valence and the voters’ weight on ideological consistency help construct a theory of seemingly puzzling behavior we see from parties and candidates in elections worldwide.