Matthew Bergman and Henry Flatt


Why Issues Matter

Elections are contested over issues. The midterm victory for the U.S. Democrats has been ascribed to their focus on healthcare. A focus on welfare state issues led to the return of Social Democrats to power in Denmark. Populist victories in Greece in 2015 and Italy in 2017 were ascribed to their anti-European positions. Green parties succeed in the European elections because of their social justice and environmental focus.


Parties are viewed as having “ownership” over key issues and when voters support those issues, their owners gain votes. Green parties “own” the environment, center-left parties “own” the welfare state, center-right parties “own” balanced budgets, and far left parties “own” collective ownership and redistribution. Typically, nationalist parties are thought to “own” issues of cultural homogeneity and anti-internationalism.


Issue Trade-offs

Parties face trade-offs when they embrace new issues. If center-left parties focus on anti-immigrant issues, they could alienate their core ideological liberals. If they focus on pro-immigration issues, they could alienate working-class voters.


It is often argued that “niche” parties “own” non-economic issues and lose support when they stray too far into the mainstream. If green parties focus on economic issues, they betray their core environmentally focused activist base. In a recent publication, we argue that nationalist parties are uniquely poised to gain votes by broadening their agenda. Engaging in economic issues, however, need not turn away nationalist supporters. “Welfare Chauvanism” is one such strategy available to nationalist parties. Here, they can argue that the welfare state much be defended against immigrants. Matteo Salvini in Italy has also argued that infrastructure spending strengthens his core voters. By engaging with mainstream economic issues, nationalist parties can expand their voter base towards the center.


Measuring Issue Diversification

To measure this we rely on Bischof’s operationalization of agenda specialization. This measure captures how much of a party’s electoral manifesto is devoted to specific topics: nationalist, euroskeptic, environmentalism, agrarianism, ethno-regionalism, and mainstream topics. The more that a party focuses on one issue, the more specialized its agenda is. Conversely if many issues are discussed, this suggests that the party is embracing issue diversity.




Here we graph how party families have altered their issue diversity since 1970. Green parties have remained quite focused on economic issues, though recently have been presenting a more diverse agenda. Christian Democratic parties have maintained a diverse profile for the past 40 years. Nationalist parties, like green niche parties, begun highly specialized, but have since diversified their agenda.


What we find

By analyzing elections over 43 years in 22 countries, our research shows that only nationalist parties gain votes by pursuing a strategy of diversifying their issue agenda; mainstream and green parties cannot use this electoral strategy to their benefit.


This strategy however cannot always be employed for electoral gain. Nationalist parties can gain when they embrace more issues from a highly specialized position. Once they become as diverse as typical parties, this pattern no longer holds. One example of this diversification strategy is Italy’s National Alliance in 1992: they received around 5% of the vote with a manifesto that contained 34.69% nationalist issues. Four years later in 1996 they had their highest electoral showing at 15.7%, while the next election saw them  reduced to 12% with an agenda only 8.05% focused on nationalist issues. This now modest emphasis on nationalist issues left Italy’s Nationalist alliance with little to gain from an issue diversification strategy.


Implications for future party competition


Our results should pique the interests of a range of individuals interested in party dynamics and parties’ connections to voters. The findings presented in the paper suggest that nationalist parties will continue to broaden their campaign messages into areas traditionally associated with mainstream parties such as redistribution, occupation displacement, and welfare state issues.

The findings of the article also shed light on how party competition differs in meaningful ways on the right from the left end of the ideological spectrum. Green parties are unable to employ the issue diversification strategy employed by nationalist parties because social democratic parties “own” many of the issues green parties would logically place greater emphasis. In an era of increasing migration and occupational displacement, the left faces a difficult balance between cutting inflows of migrant workers and maintaining a coherent progressive platform aimed at inclusivity. 


Read the full-length article published in Political Studies here.


Matthew E Bergman is a lecturer of comparative politics, political economy, and policy analysis. He is currently serving as the Director of the Krinsk-Houston Law and Politics Initiative at University of California, San Diego. 


Henry Flatt is a graduate student at the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on agenda setting and interest groups in American and comparative contexts.


Image credit: "Assemblea Rete Imprese Italia 2019" by Confartigianato Imprese is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.