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Shane Stodghill February 27, 2014

A Critique of the Spatial Theory of Electoral Competition For better or worse, the basic function of political parties in America is to win elections. This observable phenomenon led Anthony Downs to construct spatial theory on an economic basis. In this theory, Downs assumes that “parties are rational actors seeking to maximize their utility, and that they reflect the distribution of preferences in the electorate” (Shaw, 2014). He theorizes that people’s “political views can be mapped within a space or on an ideological spectrum” (Ware, 1996: 18). This leading analysis influenced the conception of a competition approach, which theoretically explains the actions of political parties due to the preferences of the mass electorate. While there is considerable merit to the spatial theory of electoral competition, I would argue that it is a mistake to think of political party competition solely in relation to the desires of voters. Parties have an extensive network of interrelated strategies available to them, which influence the voting preferences of the electorate. Spatial Theories Assumptions about Voters Downs’s assertion of spatial theory is one dimensional and based on essential assumptions. For instance, there are three critical voter assumptions. First, voters “have preferences about what types of policy they want the government to enact, and that these preferences can be assumed to be determined exogenously” (Ware, 1996: 318). Generally speaking, Downs argues that the preferences of individual voters are linked to their position within society, and therefore it was not parties who determined what voters want, but the voters themselves. Second, “that the preferences of the voters can be located on a single spectrum (a left-right spectrum)” (Ware 1996: 318). According to Downs, the preferences of voters are such


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that they can be positioned somewhere between the left most extreme and the right most extreme. Additionally, Downs assumes that if a voter has left leaning views in one aspect and right leaning views on another then his or her overall spot on the political spectrum can be averaged together. Third, “Voters are rational but are not necessarily well informed about the connection between their own preferences and the policies promoted by the different parties” (Ware, 1996: 318). Economically, voter preferences are rational in the sense that they are closest to their own values and beliefs. However, this model is unable to gauge whether or not a unique set of situational preferences is rational or not. Downs assumes that voters vote for policies which benefit them, and that they are therefore rational. Spatial Theories Assumptions about Parties Similarly, in relation to political parties Downs asserts that “issue oriented politics leads different parties to occupy different niches within political space” (Shaw, 2014). For example, in most European countries the typology of political parties includes a Communist Party, Social Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Party, and Nationalist Party. Each party is occupying a different niche of votes on the ideological spectrum, in order to maximize their chances of electoral success. Downs supports this with four key assumptions. First, “parties seek to maximize their share of the popular vote” (Ware, 1996: 318). In Downs’s understanding, parties are motivated by the desire to maximize voter support. Accordingly, they are forced to act as broad in relation to their proposed ideology as possible. Therefore, political parties must adapt their policy proposals to the demands of the electorate within their political niche on the ideological spectrum. Second, “parties move up and down the ideological spectrum, adapting their policies in response to their perception of what voters want, but they are subject to one constraint; they cannot leapfrog over other parties” (Ware, 1996: 320). This assumption indicates


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that Downs was aware of the fact that political parties are constrained by their need to look plausible to voters and by their ideological past. Consequently, a political party that has always been leftist is not free to adopt a more right leaning policy than an established right wing political party. A third assumption Downs makes about political parties is that “parties make use of ideology in their attempt to mobilize mass electorates” (Ware, 1996: 320). Political ideologies provide the electorate with a guide to the complex policy world. This enables them to make more of an informed voting decision. According to Downs’s understanding, political ideology provides a mechanism by which the electorate can make connections between their own beliefs and how they should vote. Fourthly, “the number of parties in a party system is determined by the distribution of voters along the ideological spectrum (Ware, 1996: 321). In essence, Downs assumes that voter distribution across the ideological spectrum is the driving force behind the number of political parties there are on the linear spectrum. Spatial theory Analysis Spatial theory’s underlying economic premise was originally developed by Harold Holt. Holt explained “the consequences of competition between shops located on a single street of houses. The firms compete for customers from those houses; customers have to travel to one of the shops to purchase the goods they require. Given that travel takes time, and is therefore costly, customers would travel to the nearest shop, so that it would matter considerably to the shop owners where they were located in relation to their rivals” (Ware, 1996: 18). The point of Holt’s economic model was to predict where and how stores would positions themselves when faced with this configuration of consumer preference. Considering the assumptions outlined above this economic model is what Downs used when he envisioned spatial theory. Accordingly this model


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helps us to define Downs’s notion of a “political spectrum.” For example, if a political party knows what you think about the Affordable Care Act, then it can guess what you think about defense spending, and therefore, position itself ideally on the political spectrum. Downs asserts that when there is a distribution of voters, political parties tend to shift towards the centre of the ideological continuum. As a result, we can deduce how a party will behave during election season. For instance, even if a political party can win an election from a far right or left wing stance it would be a strategic blunder to adopt for future elections. Therefore, political parties have an incentive to move to the most centered position possible on the political spectrum. Once they have reached this position they generally have no reason to shift, because any shift more left or more right along the linear spectrum would alienate a portion of voters who would then be motivated to vote for a more centrist party that aligns with their values. Competition Approach Analysis Downs analysis of spatial theory has been incorporated into different aspects of voterparty competition and exchange. However, contemporary political scientists have expanded on Downs’s original notion of one ideological spectrum to one that incorporates multiple spectrums. Yet, there are still four main features that connect Downs’s understanding of spatial theory to the more contemporary version. First, “is the idea that voter attitudes on a number of different policy areas can be linked to each other; while there may not be the single spectrum, as Downs assumed, there are a relatively small number of spectrums, and all political attitudes, encompassing many different issues fit, into one of these spectrums” (Ware, 1996: 324). A second aspect of Downs original spatial theory framework, which is integrated into the competition approach is, “most of these spectrums, and most especially the classic left-right class


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spectrum, are to be found in many polities across the liberal democratic world” (Ware, 1996: 325). In essence, spatial theory should be able to analyze all democratic states throughout the world, which utilize the single-member, simple plurality electoral structure or a proportional representation electoral structure. Thirdly, “within a single spectrum attitudes can be understood in spatial terms” (Ware, 1996: 325) for instance, between the two extreme left and right positions lays a middle position or a uni-modal distribution of opinion. Accordingly, this can lead to ideological equilibrium, and potential coalition. Fourthly, “the attitudes of voters are conceived to be formed independently of the activities of parties” (Ware, 1996: 325). Therefore, parties actively try to respond and compete with rival parties to meet policy concerns of the electorate in order to ensure their parties continued survival. If at all possible, political parties always position their proposed policies and stances within the political spectrum that is most favorable for them with respect to maximizing the support of their electoral niche. However, political parties are still reined in by their past ideological stances to the extent that it dictates proposed legislation. Nevertheless, these obstacles entrench long time support for the respective party. However, if the preferences of the constituency decay, which tends to happen over time then, so must the party’s political actions. Therefore, according to the spatial theory of electoral competition political parties continually position themselves strategically along the ideological spectrum, because they are subject to the policy desires of their constituency.

The Confines of the Spatial Theory of Electoral Competition


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While there is considerable merit to the spatial theory of electoral competition, I would argue that it ignores the fact that political parties “reflect the electoral arrangements and structural design of the country” (Shaw, 2014). Therefore, the assumption that the preferences of the electorate develop free from political party influence is questionable; political parties at least in part create or form the preferences of voters and their perceptions of their own interests through policy. For example, even in relation to the fiscal market there is considerable question as to whether or not individuals make purchasing decisions free from the influence of big corporations. Nowadays, big time corporations advertise everywhere, which almost certainly influences consumer choice. This phenomenon is clearly parallel to the political party-voter exchange in that political parties are generally the largest organized groups within a country. Political parties within the current government and those with the potential to belong to the next government are able to stimulate voter preferences through a number of different strategies. However, the assets of federal power give a sizeable advantage to the current government. For example, political parties within the current government generally employ two preference-shaping strategies. The first strategy that they make use of is partisan social engineering, which is a “voters’ attachment to, or attraction to, a particular political party that is linked to their position in the social structure, then state policies that have the effect of changing the social structure will also affect the electoral fortunes of different parties” (Ware, 1996: 326). Therefore, political parties within the government and its competitors can influence voters through policy proposals that are directly linked to their livelihood. Consequently, the government can employ its second method, which is known as adjusting social relativities. This occurs “by changing the relative position of groups in the social and economic order parties in government may be able to strengthen support for themselves among a particular group” (Ware,


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1996: 326). The political party that has formed the government is clearly able to set the scope of issue importance throughout the nation, therefore giving them a huge advantage over their rivals. However, the electoral structure of party-voter preferences works both ways. Political parties who are contending for a leadership position employ preference shaping strategies as well. For instance, they can publicly denounce the policy positions of the current government, and skew the context on which the current government takes an ideological stance. Obviously, these tactically strategies illustrate the extant that political parties have over the voting preferences of the electorate. Clearly, the spatial theory of electoral competition does not enable us to understand political party competition in the pure economic sense that Downs and spatial theory advocates had hoped for. For political parties, there is no bottom line amount that must be reached to avoid going out of business. They possess a political ideology that transcends this notion, and while it may be true that voters are generally self-interested political actors. It may also be the case that they vote for a political party that has no chance of winning purely out of loyalty or protest. Therefore, to lump electoral competition and the formation of government into a particular economic space that is premised solely on voter demand is false. On the other hand, there seems to be something to the spatial theory of electoral competition. To say that voters do not play a role in policy formation would be false also. The mass electorate in any country undoubtedly holds socialized political values that stem from places besides political parties. Therefore, it would be an error to hold the spatial theory of electoral competition in a dichotomist sense. However, for it to truly work efficiently the scope that political parties play in the formation of voter preference must be accounted for in the analysis.


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References Shaw, Daron. January 21, 2014 (12: 30 p.m.), Lecture on Typologies of Party Sytems. Ware, Alan. Political Parties and Party Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

A critique of the spatial theory of electoral competition  

This paper is a critique of the spatial theory of electoral competition.