Desperate Needs, Desperate Deeds: Why Mainstream Parties Respond to the Issues of Niche Parties

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Leeds]On: 02 November 2014, At: 06:35Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    West European PoliticsPublication details, including instructions for authorsand subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fwep20

    Desperate Needs, DesperateDeeds: Why Mainstream PartiesRespond to the Issues of NichePartiesMarc van de WardtPublished online: 27 Aug 2014.

    To cite this article: Marc van de Wardt (2015) Desperate Needs, Desperate Deeds: WhyMainstream Parties Respond to the Issues of Niche Parties, West European Politics, 38:1,93-122, DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2014.945247

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  • Desperate Needs, Desperate Deeds:Why Mainstream Parties Respond tothe Issues of Niche Parties

    MARC VAN DE WARDT

    This study explores agenda-setting dynamics between mainstream and niche parties ontwo issues owned by niche parties: immigration and European integration. It proposesan analytical distinction between opposition and government parties to understandwhich mainstream parties will engage in dialogue on these issues. Building on prospecttheory, mainstream opposition parties (MOPs) are expected to be risk-acceptant andinclined to follow the agenda of niche competitors. Conversely, mainstream governmentparties (MGPs) are risk-averse, will systematically ignore shifts in the agenda of nicheparties and only increase their attention in response to MOPs. Time-series analysesbetween 1974 and 2003 on the case of Denmark confirm the hypotheses.

    Many Western European countries have experienced a rise of niche parties(i.e. radical right, radical left and Green parties (Adams et al. 2006)) thatemphasise new issues such as immigration, European integration and theenvironment (Meguid 2005).1 While responding to these issues has led to con-siderable electoral gains for some mainstream parties, other mainstream partieshave been punished electorally or suffered even further negative consequencessuch as internal rifts. Examples include the issue of immigration for the DanishSocial Democrats (Bale et al. 2010), or the issue of European integration forthe French Socialist Party (Ivaldi 2006). This article explores why somemainstream parties are prepared to take the electoral risk of responding toniche parties on these issues.

    This question contributes to the scarce research on issue trespassingexamining when parties engage in dialogue on issues associated with a rival(Damore 2004; Holian 2004; Sigelman and Buell 2004; Walgrave et al. 2009),and to the on-going debate on the responses of mainstream parties to issuesowned by niche parties (e.g. Bale et al. 2010; Green-Pedersen 2012; Meguid2005, 2008). While existing studies provide valuable insight into how

    Correspondence Address: m.vandewardt@uva.nl

    2014 Taylor & Francis

    West European Politics, 2015

    Vol. 38, No. 1, 93122, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2014.945247

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    mailto:m.vandewardt@uva.nl

  • mainstream parties could respond to these issues (e.g. Bale et al. 2010; Meguid2005), this study offers a causal mechanism that further explains the variationbetween mainstream parties in their likelihood of responding. Adapting elementsof Kahneman and Tverskys (1979) prospect theory to political decision-making,I propose an analytical distinction between mainstream opposition parties(MOPs) and mainstream government parties (MGPs) (see also de Vries andHobolt 2012; van de Wardt et al. 2014, forthcoming). MOPs are expected to berisk-acceptant because of their membership in the opposition and to be morelikely to follow shifts in the agenda of their niche competitors. Conversely,MGPs are inclined to be risk-averse and will be reluctant to respond.Nevertheless, they are expected to react when the issue is brought forward byMOPs, suggesting that niche parties have an indirect effect on MGPs. Thesetheoretical propositions are empirically substantiated through time-series modelsexamining the agenda-setting dynamics between MOPs, MGPs and niche partiesfor the 19742003 period in the Danish parliament on the issues of immigrationand European integration.

    The next section outlines the theoretical framework and hypotheses afterwhich peculiarities of the Danish case are further elaborated. Then choicesregarding the measurement of concepts, statistical methods and model speci-fications are discussed. After presenting the results, I conclude by address-ing the implications of the findings and pointing to directions for futureresearch.

    Theory and Hypotheses

    There are several definitions of niche parties in the literature. The concept wasintroduced by Meguid (2005: 34748), who describes niche parties as partiesthat reject the traditional class-based orientation of politics and raise newissues that are not only novel, but often do not coincide with existing linesof political division. Niche parties also differentiate themselves by limitingtheir issue appeals. According to Meguid (2005: 251), the most commonniche parties are environmental and radical right parties. Alternatively, Adamset al. (2006: 513) define niche parties as those parties that present a non-centrist ideology such as Communist, Green, and extreme nationalist partyfamilies. This study adopts the definition of Meguid (2005, 2008), but focuseson a broader set of niche parties. The reason for doing so is that unlikeMeguids important work that considers mainstream parties strategic responseson immigration and environmental issues, this study also explores theirresponses on the issue of European integration. This issue is included sinceaccording to many scholars, European integration is the clearest example of anissue that does not coincide with existing lines of political division (cf.Hooghe et al. 2002; Kriesi et al. 2008; Taggart 1998; van der Burg and vanSpanje 2009), making it a niche party issue par excellence according toMeguids definition. Yet, opposition to the EU is not only mobilised by the

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  • radical right and Green parties, but also by the radical left (cf. Kriesi et al.2008; Taggart 1998). Therefore, this study classifies Green, radical right andradical left parties as niche parties.2

    In line with the logic of issue competition, niche parties selectively empha-sise their preferred issues while de-emphasising those associated with theiropponents (Budge and Farlie 1983). To survive, they seek to establish associa-tive and competence issue ownership. Associative ownership implies that theelectorate associates a party with an issue, which is a consequence of long-term party attention, while a party gains competence-based ownership when itis considered to be competent in handling the issue (Walgrave et al. 2012).From a dynamic perspective the question becomes: when will mainstream par-ties increase their attention on niche party issues? Notwithstanding their rele-vance, previous studies have mainly focused on how mainstream parties mayreact. First, mainstream parties could opt for an accommodative strategy, thatis, increasing their emphasis on the issue combined with a more similar posi-tion. Meguid (2005) argues that such a strategy is likely to undermine the dis-tinctiveness of the niche partys issue position and to enable mainstreamparties to run away with the issues, which reduces niche party electoral sup-port. Second, increased attention can be combined with opposing positions, aso-called adversarial strategy, which is expected to reinforce the issueownership of the niche party at the expense of mainstream parties located nearthe niche party (Meguid 2005). Third, mainstream parties can pursue a dismis-sive strategy, i.e. ignore the issue (Green-Pedersen 2012; Meguid 2005).Green-Pedersen (2012: 125) argues that mainstream parties will adopt such astrategy if new issues have negative consequences for coalition formation andif they offer little electoral benefit. In his words, new issues can become polit-icized, [only] if mainstream parties find it attractive to do so.

    Thus far, little attention has been devoted to the question of which main-stream parties will respond to niche parties. To date, the most fundamentalwork in this area is Meguids (2008) theory of strategic choice. Whether amainstream party will increase its attention to a niche party issue cruciallydepends on the electoral threat posed by the niche party and the strategy of itsmost important mainstream competitor. A mainstream party will employ anaccommodative strategy if the niche party poses a bigger electoral treat to itselfthan to its mainstream opponent. When this is the other way around, however,it will adopt an adversarial strategy to further boost support for the niche partyat the expense of its rival.

    Meguid (2008: 104), however, acknowledges that knowledge of the mostrational strategy for improving a partys relative electoral strength and alteringniche party support does not always ensure adoption of that tactic. She arguesthat this is due to the potential costs of these tactics. Elite factionalism, lowlevels of leadership autonomy, and the need for policy consistency may explainwhy some mainstream parties decide not to respond to niche parties. Impor-tantly, Meguids (2008: 94) contribution rests on the assumption that main-stream parties as utility maximisers are perfectly knowledgeable and choose

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  • tactics that will maximize their benefits while minimizing their costs. Thus,whether a mainstream party finds itself in office or opposition fails to matter.Yet, as will be explained below, issue trespassing entails considerable risks.Contrary to theories of utility maximisation, behavioural theories suggest thatunder uncertainty actors are only likely to adopt new strategies when their per-formance is below a certain reference point (cf. Bendor et al. 2011; Kahnemanand Tversky 1979). This study conceptualises issue trespassing as a strategyinvolving risk, and by means of insights derived from prospect theory it offersa causal mechanism explaining which mainstream parties will issue trespass.

    Issue Trespassing as Risk

    In her important work, Meguid (2005) argues that issue ownership automati-cally transfers to the mainstream party if the party pursues an accommodativetactic. Because of its greater legislative experience and better access to voters,the established party copy will be perceived as more attractive than the nicheparty original (Meguid 2005: 349). This reasoning suggests that issue trespass-ing leads to electoral success for mainstream parties. Yet, I assume that issuetrespassing also has the potential to subtract more votes than it adds. Why isthat so? First, it is easier to claim ownership over free floating issues thanthose that are already firmly owned (Kaplan et al. 2006; Petrocik 1996;Walgrave et al. 2009: 169). Given that niche parties are traditionally associatedwith issues such as immigration and European integration (Meguid 2005), itwill thus be rather difficult for mainstream parties to run away with niche partyissues. Second, Walgrave and co-authors (2009) have shown that parties willonly succeed in stealing owned issues when the original owner does notdirectly reclaim the issue. Third, issue trespassing can backfire, as it comes atthe price of addressing the issues that a party owns itself (Kaplan et al. 2006;Petrocik 1996). Thus, mainstream parties risk accentuating the niche competi-tors strength rather than their own. Moreover, they may alienate segments oftheir electorate or factions within the party because they may lack credibilityto claim ownership over issues such as immigration and European integration.Therefore, the relevance of governmentopposition status in explaining issuetrespassing begins with the fundamental assumption that this strategy nevercomes with the prospect of sure rewards but rather that such a strategyinvolves risk.3

    In understanding when actors make risky decisions, one key insight ofprospect theory is particularly relevant, namely that actors become risk-accep-tant if a particular outcome is framed as a loss compared to a reference point;conversely, they become risk-averse if the outcome is framed as a gain relativeto this reference point (Kahneman and Tversky 1979, 1984). Using questionwording experiments, Kahneman and Tversky (1979, 1984) have shown that ifthe domain of losses is activated by framing a particular decision as a meansto avoid sure losses, respondents will prefer a gamble over sure losses. Yet,

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  • when the exact same policy is presented as a means to consolidate sure gains,people will opt for a risk-averse choice. A first critique of prospect theory isthat the aggregation problem arises when prospect theory is extended toexplain the behaviour of collective actors, such as political parties. Yet, experi-ments, meta-analyses and real-world data in a variety of disciplines haveshown that groups display the same pa...