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The Elites-Voters Gap Revisited: An Exploration of Policy Positions of Politicians and Voters Based on VAA Data

Elections
Voting
Electoral Behaviour
Voting Behaviour
Patrick Dumont
Australian National University
Patrick Dumont
Australian National University
Jan Fivaz
Universität Bern
Daniel Schwarz
Universität Bern
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Abstract

Contemporary representative democracies are facing multiple challenges. Among the most important is the seemingly growing gap between political elites (party leaders, MPs) and citizens. Public discourse and the media tend to consider that political elites have become increasingly detached from the wishes and everyday realities of citizens. Subsequently, established parties have drifted apart from their voters resulting in a lack of proper representation of the citizens’ policy preferences, and thus contributed to the raise of populist parties and movements in most of western democracies. In contrast to public and media discourse however, political science research has delivered mixed results in this regard. A number of studies show that political representation defined as linking voters’ policy preferences to those of candidates and MPs and finally to enacted governmental policies works rather well (e.g., Dalton, Farrell and McAllister 2013). On the other hand, we also find studies which draw a negative picture of the quality of representational processes, where representation only works for specific voter groups (e.g. rich voters) and result in a generally large and growing distance between candidates’/parties’ positions and those of the voters. Thomassen (2012) addresses these contradicting results by arguing that the methods applied to measure representation deserve more attention. He hypothesizes that studies comparing party-voter positions based on the classic left-right dimension provide much better results compared to studies based on a number of specific policy issues which report clearly lower levels of congruence. Based on data from the Swiss national elections 2015 our paper will compare the policy preferences of candidates and their voters on the level of positions on a “catch-all” left-right dimension as well as on a large number of specific policy positions. Data from the Swiss VAA smartvote provides policy preferences for over 3’200 candidates (response rate of 84%) on 75 issues. Two pooled representative voter surveys conducted by the Swiss Electoral Study (N=16’410) and one additional survey among smartvote users (N=11’109) contain identical issue questions as the smartvote questionnaire and therefore allow for a direct and detailed comparison of issue congruence. In addition to its main focus on how good representational processes work and to which degree political elites are detached from their voters, our paper will also dig into more detailed views of the representational process, such as whether voters get better represented by the MPs they voted for compared to all candidates on average, and whether we find voter groups and political issues which are better represented than others. Finally, the paper will also speak to VAA providers facing choices regarding the number of dimensions to be used and the inclusion of saliency for matching procedures.