The Department of Government
The Department of Government

New Democracies, Same as the Old?

Fri, February 18, 2011

New research by Ken Greene, associate professor of Government, is expanding our comparative understanding of campaigns and elections across the world. Analyzing politics in Mexico and across Latin America, Greene builds off expertise generated largely through study of the United States and broadens knowledge about how campaigns, elections, voters and elected officials interact.

In “The Latin American Left’s Mandate: Free-Market Policies and Issue Voting in New Democracies,” published in the current issue of “World Politics,” Greene and his coauthor, Andy Baker, associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, demonstrate that Latin America’s new democracies are significantly more mature than analysts have suggested. Popular analyses have often interpreted Latin American electorates as caught between manipulative politicians and international economic forces, and as such not in control of their governments’ policies. Greene and Baker show instead that voters are policy oriented and that an underlying shift in voters’ policy preferences brought leftist presidents to power across Latin America. Nevertheless, the left cannot claim a radical policy mandate because its supporters hold ambivalent attitudes toward the market, opposing privatization but supporting free trade. The authors thus paint a more optimistic picture of voting behavior and policymaking in new democracies in which voters choose on the basis of policy preferences, they signal those preferences to government, and their governments have responded.  

But policy oriented voting has its limits. “Campaign Persuasion and Nascent Partisanship in Mexico’s New Democracy,” which Greene publishes later this year in the “American Journal of Political Science,” demonstrates that voters in new democracies can be persuaded by campaign rhetoric.

Research on established democracies has crafted theoretical arguments about campaign effects, but because voters in these systems have strong partisan identifications and relatively high levels of political information, political campaigns can only persuade a small percentage of voters to shift their choices away from candidates associated with their initial dispositions. But new democracies are different. In new democracies partisan attachments are weak and levels of political information are relatively low. Unsurprisingly, when voters are then flushed by mass media communications, the persuasion effects can be huge and change election outcomes.

That is precisely what happened in Mexico in the 2006 presidential election, when during nine months of campaigning 33.5% of the electorate changed its vote choice at least once. Overall, campaign messaging altered 23.9% of the electorate’s voting behavior; 10.7% of the electorate was converted away from their pre-campaign dispositions, and 69.1% of these voters ultimately voted for the winning candidate, Felipe Calderón. Moreover, the issue that shifted voting behavior was not one of fundamentals. Most people agreed that government needed to tackle the country’s pressing economic problems of poverty and unemployment, but they disagreed about candidates’ capability to do it, and the campaigns changed people’s minds about the relative competency of competing candidates.

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