Do Spitzenkandidaten debates matter? Effects on voters’ cognitions and evaluations of candidates and issues

Date01 November 2021
AuthorChristine Arnold,Irene Palacios
Publication Date01 November 2021
SubjectSpecial Issue Articles
2021, Vol. 41(4) 486 –503
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/02633957211015231
Do Spitzenkandidaten debates
matter? Effects on voters’
cognitions and evaluations of
candidates and issues
Irene Palacios and Christine Arnold
Maastricht University, The Netherlands
The Lisbon Treaty introduced key institutional changes to increase the relevance of elections
to the European Parliament (EP). Among these was the ‘Spitzenkandidaten process’, which was
introduced with the aim to increase the visibility of the EP elections and mobilise more citizens to
turnout to vote. This article investigates the effect that the debates among the Lead Candidates
had on voters’ perceptions about candidates and policy issues. To do this, we administered a two-
wave panel online survey to a sample of students from different European universities prior to
the Spitzenkandidaten debates and directly after them, following the logic of a quasi-experimental
research design. Following a difference-in-differences approach, we gauge the extent to which
those respondents who were exposed to the debates increased their degree of information about
the candidates and changed their perceptions about the candidates and their policy positions. The
findings reveal that respondents who followed the debate felt significantly more informed to make
up their minds about the candidates as well as to make their vote decisions, and show that the
debate slightly improved their perceptions of the policy positions of those candidates who they
had intended to vote for.
attitudes, campaign debates, European Parliament, Lead Candidates
Received: 31st May 2020; Revised version received: 30th March 2021; Accepted: 8th April 2021
For years, the European Union (EU) has been overshadowed by debates about its demo-
cratic deficit (Føllesdal and Hix, 2006; Moravcsik, 2002). One institution that featured
prominently in these debates was the European Parliament (EP). Elections to the EP are
considered to be second-order elections (e.g. Hobolt and Wittrock, 2011; Reif and
Schmitt, 1980), as political contestation takes place mainly over national issues and
Corresponding author:
Irene Palacios, Department of Political Science, Maastricht University, Grote Gracht 76, Maastricht 6200
MD, The Netherlands.
1015231POL0010.1177/02633957211015231PoliticsPalacios and Arnold
Special Issue Article
Palacios and Arnold 487
parties seek to strategically position themselves against their competitors with an eye
towards the next national election. Similarly, media coverage of European election cam-
paigns tends to be low, focused on national political actors, and often displaying negative
evaluations towards the EU (De Vreese et al., 2006). Not surprisingly, voters don’t feel
sufficiently informed about the European policy positions of candidates and parties, nor
are they very motived to participate (Franklin and Hobolt, 2011; Hobolt and Tilley, 2014).
To mitigate these effects, scholars have suggested that EP election campaigns need to
achieve more clarity on the policy positions of the candidates, and that the outcome of the
elections must have tangible consequences, which voters can relate to (Mair, 2007). To
achieve this, the suggestion was made that candidates should engage in televised debates
and the appointment of the Commission President should be linked to the outcome of the
EP elections (Hix, 2008). With the Lisbon Treaty, an opportunity for institutional reform
was created, which stipulated that for the nomination of the President of the European
Commission the results of the EP elections should be taken into account (Article 17(7) of
the Treaty on European Union (TEU)). Subsequently, parliamentary groups have advo-
cated that the European Council should be required to nominate the Lead Candidate
(Spitzenkandidat) based on whomever is proposed by the dominant parliamentary group.
In 2014, for the first time, debates among the Lead Candidates took place. This proce-
dure was expected to increase the visibility of the elections, help citizens choose the party
that was closest to their preferences, and encourage more voters to participate (Christiansen,
2016; Hobolt, 2014; Schmitt et al., 2015). But, as we know, the 2014 elections did not
fulfil these expectations. Overall, voting turnout was at a historical low, at 42.5%, and the
election campaigns of the Europarties were not much different, when compared to the
past (Braun and Popa, 2018; Hobolt, 2015). Some scholars have even found a polarising
tendency in the interaction of EU assessment and candidate recognition, such that voters
who were opposed to European integration were galvanized by the presence of Lead
Candidates (Popa et al., 2016). In the wake of these results, some have advocated that the
Lead Candidate procedure should be abandoned all together (Fromage, 2019).
Despite its seemingly limited effect, debates among the Lead Candidates again took
place during the 2019 EP election campaign. The following questions arise: Did the 2019
Lead Candidates debate (again) have little effects on European voters? Was it a waste of
time for candidates, parties, and voters alike? Or did it matter, and if so, for whom and
how? Research on national political campaigns has amply shown that campaigning
debates do affect voters, especially in regard to cognitive and political involvement as
well as attitudes towards candidates and issues (e.g. Benoit et al., 2003; Benoit and
Hansen, 2004). More specifically, in the European context, research on 2014 EP elections
has suggested that the debates contributed to increase voters’ interest in the elections
(Hobolt, 2014) as well as the likelihood that they would indicate a preference for a Lead
Candidate (Gattermann et al., 2016). In addition, voters have been found to respond posi-
tively to what the candidates had to say, with some voters adopting more favourable
views towards the EU (Maier et al., 2016).
It is against this background that this article investigates the effect that the 2019 Lead
Candidates debate had on voters’ information about and evaluation of candidates and sali-
ent policy issues. More particularly, we will investigate the extent to which debate expo-
sure might contribute to connect EU citizens with EP elections through the impact of the
debate on two core attitudes connected to voting decisions: political cognition and per-
ceptions about the candidates and their policy positions. Thus, our article will try to
answer the following questions: First, did debate exposure influence the degree of

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