Anything Goes. Electoral Strategies for the New Millennium, with a Lesson for Italy

July 18, 2017
Editorial Open Society
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We have long anticipated and theorized this (here is an article published in 2014 on American Political Science Review), but strong confirmations are coming from the first elections in Western Europe (The Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom, with Germany and Italy following shortly) in the important year 2017-18: the parties and leaders of today, in their electoral strategies, operate more and more on a 360-degree basis, without a predefined ideological scheme.

“Tell me your positions on economy and social justice, and I’ll tell you yours on civil rights and immigration”. This has been true in the past; at least until the big financial crisis of a few years ago. But the current state of the world gives us a new perspective. One in which each leader – giving up a presentation featuring broad, structured, and wide-ranging ideological views – focuses more and more on a limited number of issues. These may even be ideologically incoherent, but –  from an electoral point of view – they allow leaders to get to the Holy Grail of electoral politics: winning new voters without losing their own.

Having realized that this election year would turn out to be crucial, at the beginning of 2017 the CISE launched an ambitious international research program on the competition strategies of parties and political leaders. Involving four research groups from other European countries, we have planned and conducted, in the aforementioned five countries, a series of public opinion surveys aiming to investigate citizens’ views on a large number of current issues, therefore identifying the ones that hold the highest possible electoral potential for each party and each leader. At the same time, with a big data approach, we have been tracking every party’s, as well as their leaders’, communication on Twitter in order to verify whether and how the various political figures really and effectively exploit those very same issues to obtain the highest electoral performance.

First results emerging from our analysis of public opinion clearly show that voters from various European parties are nowadays hardly identifiable in ideologically coherent terms: as a result, important opportunities are opening up for the innovative strategies we have mentioned. With an important novelty: such strategies are no longer confined to “populist”, “radical” or “single issue” parties; they now appear viable even for large, mainstream parties. And it is no coincidence that the voters’ availability in this sense has been actively exploited by these types of actors:

  • In the Netherlands, there has been an unexpected use of conservative positions on immigration by parties such as Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Christian CDA or the Liberal party (VVD) – with the result of containing the progression of the “populist” Wilders (PVV);
  • In the United Kingdom – after decades of almost indistinguishable policy platforms by Tories and Labour – there has been a “re-polarization”, with Theresa May betting on the controversial issue of the so-called Hard Brexit, while Jeremy Corbyn has opted (with a certain degree of success) for much more left-wing positions regarding economic issues;
  • In France, a spectacular kaleidoscope of strategies has emerged, clearly confirming our expectations of cross-ideological issue packages. Marine Le Pen, with her classic combination of “right-wing” nationalism (anti-immigrants and anti-European Union) and “leftist” social protection; Mélenchon, with a “leftist” anti-Europeanism that has achieved an unexpected success; Finally, Macron, adhering to a different model: one with blurred positions on conflict-related issues (except the ones regarding Europe, he has been holding extremely vague positions on all other issues), betting instead on the so-called valence issues, presenting himself as an almost technocratic problem solver for a series of concerns that are dear to all French people.

“Anything goes”, then. In Italy, many have identified just Macron as a new, appealing model, but the reality is that the current state of public opinion has made it possible for a wide variety of different strategy models combining problem-solving strategies (leveraging the leader’s competence and credibility) with controversial strategies betting on divisive issues; all of them, though, sharing a focus on a small package of electorally favorable issues, where the positive association of an issue with one’s party is matched by broad popular support.

This, among other things, suggests the need to rethink the meaning of the adjective “populist”. As a matter of fact, it has been associated for a long time with attributes of ideological inconsistency, but it is now clear that we are in an era where the great majority of parties might feature those same traits.

So, what should be the lesson for Italy here? What should we look for in the months leading up to the next election? The answer is simple: as it is now obvious, in this new competitive environment each party and their respective leaders must focus on the definition of their issue strategy. If one wants to understand in advance the outcome of the upcoming political election, they need to look no further than to the choices every party is preparing: what are the “issue packages” most favourable to each party and leader? And how much will they be able to strategically invest on those issues?

The matter is all the more relevant as it also calls into question possible coalitions and alliances. The issue logic is such that some issues are able not only to attract voters to a specific party, but also to create potential alliances; other issues, on the other hand, can create sharp divisions. As a result, the analysis of public opinion in Italy (as well as the evolution of the political debate through the media) will give us invaluable information not only about possible electoral scenarios, but also about the possibilities of coalitions – before and after the vote. That is why, in September, the CISE will conduct a further survey focused on Italy, aimed at updating the public opinion outlook on a large number of issues as the strategic choices of the electoral campaign get closer and closer. So stay tuned.