When political parties fail to show ideological differences, centrist voters are less likely to vote, Stanford expert says

New Stanford research on European elections shows that when political parties fail to show ideological differences, centrist abstention from voting is higher. As parties polarize, people are also more likely to go to the ideological extremes.

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Stanford scholar Toni Rodon’s research debunks conventional wisdom by showing that the political middle is less likely to vote when parties do not distinguish themselves ideologically.

It is not the political left that tends to abstain from voting, as common wisdom would have it, but rather the center, according to a new Stanford research paper.

Toni Rodon, a visiting postdoctoral researcher in Stanford’s Department of Political Science, said that his study debunks conventional wisdom by showing that the political middle is less likely to vote when parties do not distinguish themselves ideologically.

“When parties fail to show ideological differences, centrist abstention is higher,” he wrote in the article, “When the Kingmaker Stays Home,” which was published in the journal Party Politics. Kingmaker is a term that refers to a person or group that has great influence in a political succession, without being a viable candidate itself.

For his research, Rodon used a dataset of 197 different European national studies, mostly post-electoral surveys, from 1964 to 2013.

Centrist voting

Rodon said the most surprising finding is that people locate themselves on the center position of politics for different reasons.

“While some do it because they lack enough political sophistication to understand what the left and the right stand for, others do it because they follow a centrist party or a party that has moved toward the center,” he said in an interview.

Another significant finding is that moderate individuals, with few exceptions, do not locate themselves on the center of the ideological scale, Rodon noted.

“They can be moderate on different issues, such as the welfare state, tax policies, security, but when they think in left-right terms, they don’t see themselves as ideologically moderate,” he said.

Overall the findings suggest that for an important part of European societies, a cyclical relationship exists between left-right ideology and what parties do, which in turn affects political polarization in society, according to Rodon.

“We need more research to understand this relationship, but this is suggesting that parties’ polarization can lead to a more polarized society in which compromise and pacts between the two extremes are difficult,” he said.

At the same time, the research challenges the conventional wisdom in politics that voters on the left abstain more.

Rodon said, “Convergence toward the center can increase the number of centrist individuals, but can also have drawbacks, since centrist individuals are less sophisticated – less engaged, less interested in politics – and more difficult to mobilize.”

American politics

As for the current state of American politics, Rodon said his research suggests that the political middle ground is changing.

“As parties polarize, individuals are also more likely to go to the extremes,” he noted.

Over the past few years, “party sorting” (an increased correlation between partisan identification and policy views) has occurred, said Rodon.

“Centrist individuals are less likely to take part in politics and to mobilize, therefore mobilization is undertaken by more ideological voters, whose views end up overrepresented in the media,” he said.

However, Rodon believes that the level of polarization in American politics has been exaggerated.

“Voters are not bothered by political disagreement itself, but essentially by the way in which confrontation is expressed. This can affect moderate voters more than anyone else, lowering their levels of political efficacy and political interest,” he said.

Ideology matters

Rodon said that more ideological voters are more likely to be active, especially when parties are polarized. Because centrist voters are less interested in politics and less engaged, their mobilization is also lower.

Still, the political strategy of moving parties toward the extremes – perhaps successful in the short-run or isolated cases – is unlikely to succeed in the long run, Rodon believes.

“If parties insist on moving voters to the extremes, they will have a hard time convincing them about their

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political decisions if they take power,” he said.

Secondly, most citizens are in the middle of the ideological spectrum, so political parties that pursue and win most of them are more likely to win the elections, Rodon added.

“Although my findings suggest that centrist individuals are less interested in politics and less mobilized, they also suggest that parties who are able to design a credible centrist strategy are a priori in better position to win the elections,” he said.

Media Contacts

Toni Rodon, Political Science: trodon@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu