The forthcoming article “Elite Interactions and Voters’ Perceptions of Parties’ Policy Positionsby James Adams, Simon Weschle, and Christopher Wlezien is summarized by the authors below. 

Elite Interactions and Voters’ Perceptions of Parties’ Policy Positions

How do citizens learn about parties’ policy positions?  Existing studies show that citizens use factors such as election manifestos or the policies parties implement when they govern In addition, research by Fortunato and Stevenson documents that voters use cabinet participation as a heuristic to infer agreement between coalition partners.  We extend this research to assess whether citizens inferences reflect more general patterns of inter-party cooperation and conflict beyond formal coalition participation.   

The types of elite interactions we study, which include inter-party bargaining and consultations, party elites’ public statements praising or denouncing rival parties, and politicians’ interactions with non-partisan actors, are the stuff of day-to-day political news coverage.  Yet, to date no study evaluates whether media reports of these events influence parties’ policy images.  We ask the questions: All else equal – including governing coalition arrangements and parties’ policy statements in their election manifestos – do citizens infer that pairs of parties which exhibit more cooperative public relationships share greater degrees of policy agreement?  And, does the answer to this question depend on the time point in the national election cycle?   

We present results suggesting that the answer to each of the above questions is yes.  Empirically, we analyze the degree of cooperation and conflict in public relationships among political parties from 13 Western European democracies between 2001 and 2014.  Our measure is based on latent factor network models of machine-coded news stories that report tens of thousands of interactions between elites from different political parties, along with politicians’ interactions with non-partisan actors. We show that the degree of inter-party cooperation and conflict varies sharply across different pairs of parties, and that, while governing coalition partners on average have more cooperative relationships than other party pairs, there is surprising variation in the tenor of coalition partners’ relations.  We then assess whether these inter-party relationship scores predict citizens’ perceptions of parties’ Left-Right ideological positionsdrawn from surveys administered around the times of national parliamentary elections as well as at other points in the election cycle. 

We find that around the times of national elections citizens perceive more Left-Right agreement between pairs of parties that have more cooperative public relationships.  In addition, we also demonstrate that this cooperation effect is not detectible at other points in the election cycle.  Finally, the results show that citizens also apply the coalition heuristic, particularly in non-election years, when the cooperation effect is not evident. 

Our findings reflect positively on the mass public’s political capacities, as they imply that citizens roughly estimate how cooperative the relationships between different pairs of parties are, and use these estimates to infer parties’ positions.  This adds to Fortunato and Stevenson’s identification of a coalition heuristic: while citizens do indeed rely on the simple information shortcut of formal coalition arrangements, they supplement this heuristic with inferences based on more nuanced perceptions of how parties interact with each other – but only near the times of national elections.  

About the Authors: James Adams is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Davis, Simon Weschle is Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science and the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, and Christopher Wlezien is Hogg Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.   Their researchElite Interactions and Voters’ Perceptions of Parties’ Policy Positionsis now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.