Party supporters shift views to match partisan stances

Last modified January 5, 2021. Published December 22, 2020.

“I was surprised to see the parties appeared this powerful in shaping opinions,” one researcher said. (Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash)

Supporters of a political party change their policy views “immediately and substantially” after that party switches its position on an issue, new research suggests, a sign that political elites could be shaping the opinions of the voters whose views they’re supposed to represent.

In an article published in the American Journal of Political Science in November, co-authors Rune Slothuus and Martin Bisgaard of Aarhus University detailed their findings from Danish public opinion surveys that party leaders can fundamentally shift the stances of their followers, causing them in some cases to quickly reverse their views even on high-stakes policy issues.

Through surveys of 1,206 Danish citizens between March 2010 and June 2011, the researchers tracked the positions of voters before and after the Liberal Party and the Danish People’s Party signaled changes in their stances on key, broadly popular social welfare programs, including unemployment benefits and Denmark’s early retirement program. 

In 2010, both the Liberal Party and the DPP reversed from opposing to supporting a reduction in unemployment benefits. And in 2011, the Liberal Party shifted from opposing to supporting the abolition of the country’s early retirement program. 

Slothuus and Bisgaard discovered that among those voters who backed the Liberal Party or the DPP, policy opinions overall “immediately moved by around 15 percentage points in response to their party’s new issue position,” while those of other partisan groups were mostly unchanged. 

“The positions political parties take on policy issues exert a major influence on how ordinary citizens think about these issues,” Slothuus told The Academic Times. “When a political party reverses its position on a major policy issue, supporters of that party change their opinion to be in line with the party.”

The researchers set out to better understand the relationship between communications from party elites and how public opinion is formed. While previous theoretical and experimental work had helped political scientists pinpoint correlations between individuals’ party affiliations and their policy views, it has been difficult to determine exactly how much influence parties really have over their supporters, according to Slothuus and Bisgaard.

That’s in part because it’s hard to replicate real-world circumstances, even in experiments designed to test whether party position-taking causes changes in the views of that party’s backers. Many well-designed experiments occur in “a sterile environment” and shed light mostly on the potential of elite influence, they said, rather than its actual impact in a “noisy” social and political environment.

Slothuus said the survey panel, carried out over five successive “waves” between 2010 and 2011, allowed the researchers to more directly observe the ways public opinion shifted immediately before and after certain parties changed their tunes.

“It’s [generally] difficult for scholars to get into the field to conduct studies” exploring these impacts, Slothuus said. “But in our article, we report the two instances where we had a big survey in the field and can follow before, during and after the major party in Denmark switched its position.”

By surveying the same individuals throughout the study, Slothuus said, the researchers could ensure the effect they observed at the party level wasn’t being caused by people shifting party allegiances in response to the parties’ shifts on the issues. 

And because the respondents had been surveyed starting before the platform changes went public, Slothuus and Bisgaard could also determine that many individuals reversed their support for policies that they themselves had very recently backed.

“We can see that these welfare programs were actually quite popular … and many of the voters of the center-right party were in favor of these welfare programs,” Slothuus said, referring to unemployment benefits and early retirement. “Nevertheless, we can see that they reversed their opinion from supporting these welfare programs to [immediately] opposing these welfare programs.”

The ability of party leaders to reverse their followers’ views, rather than simply nudge them one way or another, is a testament to their power over public opinion. “I was surprised to see the parties appeared this powerful in shaping opinions,” Slothuus said, noting that the bulk of the effect didn’t depend on supporters’ prior policy positions.

“Our findings suggest that partisan leaders can indeed lead citizens’ opinions in the real world, even in situations where the stakes are real and the economic consequences tangible,” Slothuus and Bisgaard said in the article.

There’s reason to believe what’s been observed in Denmark is likely to hold in the U.S., Slothuus said, noting that Republicans’ views on international trade, Russia and election integrity have changed seemingly in response to the positions that President Donald Trump has taken.

And the power that elites wield over public opinion could have an upside, according to Slothuus. Party leaders could use their sizable influence to reach across many of the divides that currently polarize citizens on the left and right.

But while there are limits to the effect elite position-taking has on public opinion, Slothuus continued, the article’s findings call into question whether democracies genuinely represent the views of voters.

“If citizens just blindly follow their party without thinking much about it, that should lead to some concern about the mechanisms in our democracy,” he said. “Because how can partisan elites represent citizens’ views if the views of citizens are shaped by the very same elites who are supposed to represent them?”

The article, “How Political Parties Shape Public Opinion in the Real World,” was published on Nov. 4 in the American Journal of Political Science and co-authored by Rune Slothuus and Martin Bisgaard of Aarhus University.

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