A Behavioral Theory of Electoral Structure

Till Weber & Mark Franklin

Imagine an alien visitor sent to Earth to observe three indigenous rituals of leadership selection: the US presidential election of November 2016, the UK general election of June 2017 and the German federal election of September 2017. Our visitor knows from alien intelligence that the first-mentioned country has just undergone a campaign with the most-hated pair of candidates for its top office since the beginning of mass polling; that the second country has just dissolved its highest decision-making body in the midst of the gravest national crisis most people alive have experienced; and that the third country, infamous for its genocidal racism, has just taken in the largest number of foreign refugees in its history.

Yet our visitor finds that the organizations entrusted with governing these three countries are the same ones as before, and not even the relative level of popular support shows much sign of transformation. Earthlings, our visitor concludes, highly value order and stability in their political life.

In a recent article we aim to assist alien intelligence with explaining the surprising robustness of party systems in human democracies. The short answer to our visitor’s conclusion is that at the time of leadership selection, electoral democracy is indeed quite orderly and stable. However, this is not naturally so. Human society harbors a great deal of complexity, as can be observed whenever the quest for executive office is not on people’s minds. Party systems and electoral institutions function to restore order right in time for important leadership contests.

More technically, we theorize patterns of electoral competition as the outcome of a struggle between entropy and structure. Forces of entropy entail idiosyncratic voting behavior guided by subjective evaluations, while forces of structure entail coordinated behavior emerging from objective aspects of party preference. Our model locates determinants of party preference on a continuum spanning subjective and objective concerns. Entropy is endemic but elections for nationwide executive office periodically prime objective concerns, reinstating structure in party systems. We demonstrate the cyclical pulse of national elections in a comparative analysis of pseudo-randomized survey data from the European Election Studies since 1989. We also show how feedback from differently-sized party systems consolidates different working equilibria.

After presenting our findings at the annual meeting of the Galactic Political Science Association, we received critical feedback from alien intelligence. Apparently our visitor had also observed the French elections of 2017, and this case didn’t seem to fit our theory at all.

Fortunately we were able to dispel the doubts. Our theory posits (and our empirical evidence shows) that the forces of structure appear in different guises in differently-sized party systems. While in fragmented systems cyclical structuring is clearly visible, in systems dominated by two parties the obvious focus on which of the two will control the executive is generally sufficient to maintain structure. French two-round presidential elections have traditionally ensured the same focus, and spillover from the presidential race has structured ensuing legislative elections as well. Electoral institutions play a role here as they deter entry by third-party candidates, a phenomenon that can be most cleanly observed in the US. In France, our alien visitor was lucky enough to catch a peculiarity of the electoral system in action: An Earthling named Macron won a place on the second-round ballot with as little as 24% of first-round support. From there on the focus on executive power reliably summoned the forces of structure to chase off the forces of entropy, giving the highflyer 66% of second-round votes with close to the same turnout. Spillover to the legislative arena, another unmistakable sign of structuring, then awarded the party of the new president an absolute majority in parliament.

Party systems do change; more striking for the outside observer, however, appears to be their puzzling robustness—their seeming ability to retain structure even under adverse circumstances, absorbing pressure toward disintegration by channeling it into confined fluctuations in relative party strengths. We believe that this is an important insight for anyone interested in contemporary electoral democracy, wherever they are from.


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