The winner-loser gap and satisfaction with democracy

Med data fra det svenske medborgerpanelet, undersøker Jonas Linde og Stefan Dahlberg stabiliteten til «vinner-taper-gapet» blant svenske velgere over en valgperiode på fire år.

Av Jonas Linde og Stefan Dahlberg*

All democratic elections produce winners and losers. In democracies, the issue of how the losers perceive the political system is particularly crucial. The way in which people react to political loss is critical for the legitimacy of the democratic political system. It is important that at least some losers perceive the political system and its performance as satisfactory. Democratic legitimacy requires broad support from winners and losers.

Many studies have shown that the outcome of elections is closely connected to peoples’ perceptions of the more general functioning of the political system. Being a political “loser” – in the sense of having voted for a party that ends up in opposition to the winning party/coalition in government – significantly increases the likelihood of being dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy, and vice versa for the “winners”.

Most studies concerned with the winner-loser gap have focused on its consequences for different dimensions of political support. Although recent research has produced a substantial stock of knowledge about the consequences of being a loser or a winner, we know little about dynamics of the winner-loser gap. Our article is a first attempt to present a thorough examination of the stability of the winner-loser gap over time.

In order to examine the dynamics of the gap properly we rely on individual level data from the Swedish citizen panel Medborgarpanelen, conducted at the University of Gothenburg. This dataset consists of surveys that contain the same respondents over time. Most earlier studies concerned with the winner-loser gap over time have relied on cross-sectional data collected at different points in time. However, with cross-sectional data the best we can do is to assess the aggregated gap in support between winners and losers at different times, thus comparing winner-loser gaps consisting of different samples and individuals. We have access to eight surveys covering the time period from the autumn 2010 to spring 2014.

In our analyses, two variables are of main interest. First, we need a measure of winners and losers – the main independent variable. The panel surveys contain data on respondents’ vote in the last election. By matching this information with the parties that formed government after the 2010 election, we are able to identify electoral winners and losers.

The election on 19 September 2010 resulted in a prolonged mandate to govern for the centre-right government alliance consisting of the conservative Moderate Party (Moderaterna), the Liberal People’s Party (Folkpartiet), the Centre Party (Centerpartiet) and the Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna). Thus, voters stating that they cast their vote for any of these parties in the election are defined as winners. We define those who state that they voted for any of the four non-government parties in the Swedish parliament as losers.

Second, we need to measure political support – the dependent variable. Here, we follow the standard procedure in earlier research and use a question asking respondents how satisfied they are with the way democracy works in Sweden. It is scaled from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 4 (very satisfied).

Earlier studies employing a dynamic perspective on the winner-loser gap suggest – on the most basic level – that there is a positive (negative) effect on political support of being an electoral winner (loser). However, there are also reasons to hypothesize that the winner-loser gap should be less consistent over time. It is not unlikely that the gap will cancel out as people acquire new information about the performance of the new government. If winners and losers use the same information to judge the performance of the government this rational reaction to new information could result in a narrowing of the satisfaction gap, at the least.

We start out by looking at the average levels of satisfaction with democracy among electoral winners and losers in Sweden at eight points in time, for a period of almost four years (Figure 1). Each panel step contains the same respondents. Winners constantly express higher levels of satisfaction than the losers do. Moreover, the gap is more or less constant throughout the whole period.

Figure 1. Satisfaction with the way democracy works among electoral winners and losers, 2010-2014 (Citizen Panel)

Linde Fig1

This confirms the patterns of stability in the winner-loser gap found in previous research based on pooled cross-sectional data. Thus, at this point we find no support for the “rational response hypothesis”, i.e. that the gap in satisfaction should level out over the course of the electoral cycle. Rather, the pattern over time is very consistent, particularly concerning the losers, thus supporting the “stability hypothesis”. The question is, however, if this pattern still holds in a series of multivariate analyses, where we control for factors that have been shown to be of importance for satisfaction with democracy, such as political trust, political interest, left-right extremism, along with socio-demographic factors (gender, age, education and employment). The estimates from a growth-curve model show that the gap between winners and losers is very consistent over time (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Marginal effect of being winner and loser on satisfaction with democracy over time

Linde fig2

Overall, our analyses demonstrate a strong consistency of the winner-loser gap throughout the whole period under investigation. At all points in time, the winners display higher levels of political support than the losers, and the magnitude of the gap is surprisingly stable. The graph shows a slight tendency that the winners becomes marginally less satisfied over time, but the gap is far from being cancelled out. The result is robust to several tests, including a wide variety of estimation techniques.

Therefore, in relation to the expectations presented above it is clear that in Sweden, the experience of losing does not seem to be a temporary disappointment with the election outcome but rather a relatively long-lasting aspect of how voters regard the functioning of the democratic system.

We believe that the results are interesting in relation to research on political support and legitimacy on a more general level. In Sweden, although losers express lover levels of satisfaction than winners, they are nonetheless relatively content with the way democracy works. This means that the effect of experiencing electoral loss in terms of lower levels of satisfaction with democracy does not, on average, seem to affect system legitimacy in a substantially harmful way. However, if this pattern is to be found in less mature democracies, where levels of political support most often are substantially lower, a negative long-term effect of losing on support might be really bad news for the legitimacy of the political system. In the long run, a democratic regime is dependent on the consent of not only political winners but also a substantial share of those ending up on the losing side.

Kilde: Dahlberg, S., & Linde, J. (2017). The dynamics of the winner–loser gap in satisfaction with democracy: Evidence from a Swedish citizen panel. International Political Science Review, 38(5), 625-641. doi:10.1177/0192512116649279

*Jonas Linde er professor ved Institutt for sammenliknende politikk ved Universitetet i Bergen

Stefan Dahlberg er førsteamanuensis ved Institutt for sammenliknende politikk ved Universitetet i Bergen

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