What is issue ownership and how should we measure it?

Rune Stubager

The concept of issue ownership is becoming increasingly prominent in research on both party competition and vote choice. The idea basic idea is that voters hold conceptions of which party is best at handling a given issue, and the party that “owns” an issue in this way is well advised to focus its campaign on the issue since doing so will prime voters to base their vote choice exactly on their assessment of who handles the issue best. On closer inspection, however, the concept of issue ownership is rather unclear and different scholars have more or less different definitions of it. It is unclear, simply, what issue ownership is. There is more – but by no means complete – agreement when it comes to measuring issue ownership where most rely on some version of questions like “Which party is best at handling unemployment?” – or some other issue of interest. But to what extent do answers to such questions really convey independent information over and above voters’ policy attitudes and party identification?

In my article I address these questions about what issue ownership is and how it is best measured. I begin by distilling the core of the concept from the seminal studies in the field – those of Budge and Farlie (1983a; 1983b) and Petrocik (1996) – and the most comprehensive recent treatment (Egan 2013). On this basis I propose to define issue ownership as the perception in a voter’s mind that a specific party over the long term is most competent at handling – in the sense of delivering desired outputs on – a given issue. The definition highlights two aspects of issue ownership that have not been clearly identified by previous work. First, the long-term character of such conceptions is underlined. The temporal dimension has been subject to some discussion in earlier work, but if the concept is to be distinguishable from the fluctuations of performance evaluations, the long-term aspect is important. Likewise, the specification that “handling” involves the delivery of policy outputs is important since it points out what it underlines voters’ fundamental interest in policy outputs – not mere talk on behalf of parties: Even if a party puts a lot of emphasis on, e.g., crime, if it is unable to deliver on its promises, voters should not see it as competent at “handling” crime.

Using this definition, I assess the current practice of measuring issue ownership by means of the standard, “best at handling”-measure mentioned above. In a first step, I use a question wording experiment involving four different issues embedded in a nationally representative sample of Danish voters to assess the validity of the measure by comparing it to a range of alternatives each highlighting different aspects of issue ownership: the short or the long term, parties policy positions or their competencies as well as the mere association of a party with an issue (i.e., so-called “associative issue ownership”, cf. Walgrave et al. 2012). The results contain both good and bad news for the standard measure. On the positive side, it appears more influenced by competence than policy considerations just as it is clearly demarcated from the associative dimension. However, with regard to the temporal aspect, the standard measure is clearly more influenced by short- than long-term considerations. This raises doubts about the validity of the measure vis-à-vis the proposed definition.

The short-term influence on the standard measure also shows up in a fairly high degree of over-time instability which is documented in a second analytical step. Thus, the original experiment was repeated on the very same respondents after a three year period which makes it possible to assess the stability of responses to the various measures. And while the standard measure exhibits as much variation as a short-term focused one, a measure focused on the long-term – e.g., asking “If you disregard the current situation and look, instead, at the last 30-40 years which party is then in your opinion best at handling crime?” – is, as should be expected, the most stable.

The long-term measure also appears preferable in the third analytical step where I investigate the degree of overlap between, on the one hand, party identification and policy attitudes and, on the other, issue ownership as measured in the different ways mentioned. Thus, the long-term measure, which is both more valid and more stable than the standard one, also turns out to be more independent of the two well-known voter predispositions. This means that the long-term measure picks up more unique variation than the standard measure. The latter, therefore, is more redundant (the analyses suggest that it shares about 50 % of its variation with these predisposition), than the long-term one.

On this background, I suggest to replace the standard measure with the long-term alternative. Not only is the latter more valid and stable, it is also more unique vis-à-vis other, well-established concepts. In other words, it provides more leverage for scholars interested in what issue ownership is and where it comes from – but also with respect to what it does. If one disregards the issues of validity and redundancy identified in my analysis it would, hence, amount to building on sand, since one wouldn’t really know what issue ownership is, nor to what extent it provides independent information.

The analyses also suggest that it may be misleading to talk of a separate dimension of “associative issue ownership”. Thus, the comparison of a measure hereof with all other measures included in the analysis shows it to be almost completely independent and since the associative dimension does not involve any necessary positive aspect – i.e. that a party is “best” in some way – I would argue that the phenomenon is best dealt with under a different term than (a dimension of) issue ownership.

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