Konstantin Vössing


It matters what politicians say about Europe. New research shows that public opinion is swayed by the justifications politicians use to defend their views of European integration. Surprisingly, people who are less invested in politics pay more attention to a politician’s justifications (but only when they listen to a single politician rather than both sides of the issue!).


The Brexit vote has shown that politicians can sway public opinion against European integration. Brexiteers managed to justify their negative views of the European Union in a way that voters found convincing. They claimed, for example, that leaving the EU would allow the United Kingdom to limit immigration, regain its autonomy, and improve the funding of its health care system. Pro-EU politicians were not quite as successful in crafting justifications for remaining in the EU that voters found equally convincing. But does it even matter what the two sides had to say? Is there evidence that the justifications politicians use to defend their views affect what people think about the EU?


An article published in Political Studies answers these questions with experimental methods. Using experiments makes it possible to conclude with some certainty that the things politicians say really do (or do not) have an effect on voters’ views (instead of a wide range of other factors, such as their home town, their social class, their income, or their age). To make it an even tougher test, the article investigates whether the statements of politicians about Europe influence public opinion even in a situation in which people could simply follow their partisan instincts. Political scientists call this “relying on party cues”, which means that people ignore politicians’ statements. Instead of scrutinizing politicians’ words, people will judge the policies advocated by a politician based on how they feel about his or her party. If they like his/her party, they will also support whatever policy the politician suggests, and vice versa.


In the experiments reported in the article, participants read a mock article in which made-up politicians justify their (positive or negative) views on a new (also made-up) policy giving the EU more power. The experiments randomly assign participants to different kinds of justifications, and they also vary the party affiliation of the politician randomly. This makes it possible to determine whether justifications or the party label have a greater effect on people’s views of the policy.


To figure out the role of the competitiveness of the political context, the two experiments created scenarios with higher and lower competitiveness, respectively. The mock article used in the first experiment mentions only one politician expressing support for more EU power (which makes this a low-competitiveness scenario). The second experiment creates a higher-competitiveness scenario, because the article used in this experiment reports the views, justifications, and party affiliations of two politicians with opposing views.


The participants in both experiments come from different social groups that represent the entire variety of the German voting age population. For ethical reasons, all participants are fully debriefed after the experiment is over. They are told that they received a mock article and how this procedure helps to provide a valid answer to a researcher’s question.


Participants in the experiments also provided information about how much they enjoy thinking about politics, how important the issue of European integration is to them, and how much they know about politics. These three factors are important to identify the extent of people’s political investment. When you like thinking about politics, find the issue important, and know much about it, you are more politically invested than someone who dislikes thinking about politics, finds the issue unimportant, and knows little about it.


So, what drives public opinion about Europe? The justifications politicians use to defend their views of Europe, or simply the party cue voters receive from a politician?


The answer is, both justifications and party cues matter, on average! Which of the two matters more depends on the competitiveness of the political context and on voters’ investment in politics.


Contrary to conventional wisdom, more politically invested citizens are more prone to take the easy way out and rely on party cues, while uninvested citizens are more likely to take into account a politician’s justifications when forming an opinion. However, this conclusion only holds in non-competitive contexts featuring one-sided communication (created in the first experiment). When competitiveness increases (in the second experiment), politically invested citizens are able to grasp and process both justifications and cues at the same time, while the opinions of uninvested citizens become erratic.


It is a cause of concern for the potential of wide democratic deliberation over the issue of European integration that only the most politically invested citizens are able to process both party cues and justifications in the (most common) case of a political context that is competitive. It is equally concerning that the same politically invested people will ignore a politician’s justifications when competitiveness disappears and simply reproduce their partisan preconceptions.


However, politicians do have a real opportunity to reach and convince even less politically invested citizens with their rhetoric of justification, as long as they manage to speak to them without interference from their political competitors. In the Brexit debate, politicians in favour of leaving the EU managed to do this better than their competitors.


Author biography


Konstantin Vössing is a political scientist in the Department of International Politics at City University London. He has had previous appointments at Ohio State University, Humboldt University Berlin, Harvard University, and the European University Institute. His research is concerned with European integration, public opinion, political leadership, and political mobilization. He tweets at @K_Vossing. Image credit: CC by European Parliament/Flickr.


Ideas in this piece were first discussed in an article for our journal Political Studies and can be found here.