Competing Without Chances (I)

By Marc Guinjoan, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

What is the story?

In real-life elections, it is not uncommon for some parties to compete even if they have no chance of winning or even of gaining parliamentary seats. According to most theories of party competition, the existence of a cost of entry (i.e., the cost of running a campaign or to even to qualify as a candidate) should deter non-viable parties from competing. How can we thus explain the willingness of some non-viable parties to compete?

In a recent book, I address both the organisational and institutional factors that explain the decision of political parties to compete without chances to gain even a single seat. In this blog post, I deal with the organisational factors; I leave the institutional explanations for an upcoming blog post.

A multi-arena logic

Most theories of party competition assume a perfect independence between electoral arenas. However, many democracies are composed of various arenas that overlap on a given territory (e.g., local, regional and national elections). It is therefore reasonable to think that, in reality, parties make decisions regarding entry in a multi-arena logic.

To investigate this issue, I have conducted in-depth interviews with party elites and campaign managers in Canada and Spain between 2010 and 2011 (some of them have been conducted within the MEDW project). In some cases, the actors decided to withdraw their candidacy or to join a coalition because they were non-viable (as it would have been predicted by party competition theories), in others they decided to compete even if they had no chance of winning.

Two organisational factors

It is not uncommon to see that, in a given territory, parties decide to compete in an election where they are viable and in another where they are not. This phenomenon, labelled as electoral contamination or contamination effect, is generated by two organisational factors.

1. Economies of scale
First, the overlap of electoral arenas generates economies of scale for political parties. If a party is already present in a given territory because it is viable in one arena, the cost for competing in another arena is low (for e.g., a group of candidates and activists are already present and active). Therefore, this party can decide to compete even if they have no chance of winning due to the relatively marginal cost of entry. However, my interviews show that the mere presence of economies of scale is not enough to explain the decision of non-viable parties to enter elections.

2. Political externalities
Second, there are sometimes positive political externalities for a party to compete in an arena where it is not viable (and negative externalities not to compete). From my interviews, I show that parties gain of visibility, a promotion of the party label (particularly for large parties), an activation of local party section, and the possibility of raising awareness about certain issues (particularly for ideologically rigid parties) by competing on a separate platform.

Analogously, the decision to withdraw from competition has negative political externalities such as a damage of reputation (particularly for parties that decide to present joint candidacies with other parties) and a tension with the local grass-root members.

For more information, see the book Parties, Elections and Electoral Contests: Competition and Contamination Effects” (Ashgate Publishing, 2014).

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.