The effect of voters’ economic perception, Brexit and campaigns on the evaluation of party leaders over time

Date01 May 2020
DOI10.1177/1369148119886220
Published date01 May 2020
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
https://doi.org/10.1177/1369148119886220
The British Journal of Politics and
International Relations
2020, Vol. 22(2) 202 –219
© The Author(s) 2020
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DOI: 10.1177/1369148119886220
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The effect of voters’
economic perception,
Brexit and campaigns
on the evaluation of party
leaders over time
Jan Berz
Abstract
When and why do voters change their evaluation of party leaders? Voters’ evaluations of party
leaders are an increasingly important determinant of electoral behaviour. Which factors influence
these evaluations of party leaders? Do voters evaluate party leaders who hold the office of prime
minister differently from other party leaders, and do electoral campaigns and issues change these
evaluations? I use a multilevel growth model with panel data from the United Kingdom to analyse
effects over time. I find that campaigns play a significant role and that voters’ stance on Brexit
has a considerable time-varying effect. In addition, voters use economic performance as a valence
signal for party leaders holding the office of prime minister and therefore hold them accountable
for bad economic performance, especially during election campaigns. These findings show that
the personalization of politics may endanger the democratic function of elections to a lesser
extent than is commonly feared.
Keywords
Brexit, campaign, party leader, personalization of politics, prime minister, valence
Introduction
Why do voters change their evaluation of party leaders? The electoral impact of voters’
evaluations of party leaders in parliamentary elections has been extensively covered
(Aarts et al., 2011; Bittner, 2011, 2018b; Costa and Ferreira da Silva, 2015; Ferreira da
Silva, 2018; Garzia, 2014, 2017; Lobo and Curtice, 2014; Mughan, 2015) and the influ-
ence of party leaders in elections may further increase as established democracies tend to
become more and more personalised (Kriesi, 2012; Poguntke and Webb, 2005; Rahat and
Kenig, 2018; Rahat and Sheafer, 2007; Wattenberg, 1991). Although it has also been
Institute for Political Science, Fa cul ty of Hu ma nities and So ci al Sci en ces, Leuphana University of Lüneburg,
Lüneburg, Germany
Corresponding author:
Jan Berz, Institute for Political Science, Fa cul ty of Hu ma nities and So ci al Sci en ces, Leuphana University of
Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Universitätsallee 1, 21335 Lüneburg, Germany.
Email: jberz@leuphana.de
886220BPI0010.1177/1369148119886220The British Journal of Politics and International RelationsBerz
research-article2020
Original Article
Berz 203
argued that party leaders have always had an electoral impact (Bittner, 2018a). Scholars
argue that such a personalisation of parliamentary democracies may endanger democracy.
Voters may no longer hold parties accountable for their behaviour in office, but rather rely
on their feelings towards party leaders (Curtice and Hunjan, 2011; Huber, 2014). These
concerns would be less pressing if voters’ changes in these feelings are caused by political
issues and if party leaders in government positions are held to account. In this study, I
address these concerns by analysing voters’ evaluations of party leaders over time. Until
now, electoral studies have mainly focused on the between-person effect of party identi-
fication (PID) (King, 2002; Oscarsson and Holmberg, 2011) to explain differences in
voters’ feelings towards party leaders. These studies argue that voters who identify with a
party are also more likely to evaluate the leader of that party more positively. In contrast,
the within-person effect of changes in PID on the evaluation of party leaders has received
less attention. In addition, many electoral studies have focused on the evaluation of party
leaders at the time of parliamentary elections and only provide a cross-sectional view on
the evaluation of party leaders by the electorate. A longitudinal analysis will foster our
understanding of how voters form their evaluation of party leaders.
In addition, this study also explains campaign dynamics in the recent 2017 British
General Election. Mellon et al. (2018) have shown that the 2017 General Election cam-
paign was characterised by considerable changes in voters’ perception of the two party
leaders, Theresa May and Jermey Corbyn. A longitudinal analysis will be able to explain
these dynamics. In electoral campaigns, parties seek to present their party leaders in the
best way possible (Milazzo and Hammond, 2017). Do these campaigns persuade voters to
change their evaluation of party leaders? In this study, I analyse the effect of several factors
on voters’ evaluations of party leaders: the effect of campaigns as well as the within- and
between-person effects of voters’ PID, and their stance on Brexit. I furthermore analyse if
voters use economic performance as a valence signal for party leaders who hold the office
of prime minister and in consequence hold them directly accountable.
The findings show that the attachment of voters to parties and voters’ stance on Brexit
have a significant impact on their evaluation of party leaders. The effect of Brexit further-
more increases over time as the issue itself becomes more salient. The two party leaders
who held the office of prime minister (Theresa May and David Cameron) are held
accountable for economic performance. In contrast, the effect of voters’ economic per-
ception is negligible for other party leaders.
The rest of the article is structured as follows: First, I discuss potential causes of vot-
ers’ evaluations towards party leaders. Second, a descriptive analysis on how voters’
evaluations of the party leaders under study developed over time is provided. Following
this analysis, relevant events are identified and the specification of each party leader’s
multilevel growth model is discussed. Third, I review my findings, their robustness and
how further studies may depart from the presented evidence.
Causes of party leaders evaluations
What causes voters to evaluate some party leaders more positively than others? In this
section, I discuss why party leaders matter to voters and subsequently identify potential
causes behind voters’ evaluation of them.
A frequent argument levelled against the electoral impact of party leaders is the
hypothesis that voter’s evaluation of party leaders heavily depends on their feelings
towards the party as a whole (Oscarsson and Holmberg, 2011). The dominance of parties

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