Who votes for the new parties? Economic voting, political ideology and populist attitudes


The economic and financial crisis of the late 2000s is widely recognized as having facilitated the success of new political parties in Europe. Hugo Marcos-Marne, Carolina Plaza-Colodro and Tina Freybourg argue that voting for new parties cannot be understood as a simple economic response. On the contrary, populist attitudes can lead citizens to perceive the new parties as a real alternative to traditional forces at a time when the economic crisis meets an increasingly deep crisis of democratic representation.

In the wake of the financial and economic crisis of 2008, most European societies saw the electoral decline of established parties and the emergence of new ones. These new political actors have gained attention for their rapid success, but also because they are often seen as symptomatic of a populist trend in European politics.

Spain provides an example. In the 2011 national elections, the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) was first removed from office in favor of the Conservative Popular Party (PP). In the subsequent 2015 elections, and after the outgoing PP implemented an austerity program, the electorate punished the two established parties with historically low percentages of the vote and turned to two newcomers, Ciudadanos and Podemos.

The two new parties are distinguished by their critical attitude towards the Spanish political establishment; at the same time, they differ considerably in their political ideology, Ciudadanos being a center-right party and Podemos a radical left party.

The emergence and sustainability of new parties

But what will happen to new parties like Ciudadanos and Podemos once the economic crisis moves off the political agenda? Formulating expectations on this and related issues requires a better understanding of what drives the success of new parties and the relative demise of traditional parties. The success of the two new Spanish parties, like other new political parties in Europe, is generally explained by the negative reaction of voters to the economic conditions in their country. Voters who feel that their own economic situation, and in particular that of their state, is deteriorating, will tend to punish the ruling party by voting for alternatives, whether they are opposition parties or former forces. marginal / new, or by abstaining.

Despite the importance of the economic voting theorem, many researchers doubt that voting is reducible to short-term judgments of national economic performance alone. They highlight the role of political ideology in influencing voters’ reactions to perceived economic decline. In addition to the economic voting theorem, this perspective considers voters’ perceptions of the economic situation as being mediated by their respective political ideology. Thus, it is the ideological perception of economic hardship (rather than the objective state of the economy) that explains the vote against the establishment.

Introduce populist attitudes

We argue that this table is still not complete. Academic research into how the Great Recession fueled the success of new parties in national elections has left an additional dimension uncovered: the role of populist attitudes. We adopt the widely held definition of populism as a thin ideology which views society as ultimately being separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”, and which maintains that politics should be the expression of general opinion. will of the “people”.

Viewing populism as a thin ideology allows us to distinguish it from “thicker” ideologies providing all-encompassing worldviews, such as socialism or liberalism. Populism can thus be presented in combination with programs of left and right parties or without a specific ideologically defined program. Populist attitudes of individuals are further understood as latent; they can be activated by political actors with a populist discourse that makes them electorally effective.

Studies have shown that populist attitudes of voters are good predictors of support for populist parties. However, not all the new parties that have emerged as a result of the financial and economic crisis are populist, as Ciudadanos illustrates. However, new parties could have benefited from the votes of citizens with populist attitudes. Without necessarily being populist, the new parties are surely trying to present themselves as capable of breaking with existing political power relations. This could explain the attractiveness of the new parties for voters with populist attitudes.

New parties and populist attitudes

Our research on the new Spanish parties provides evidence to support this hypothesis. Using data from a representative survey, we find that voters with strong populist attitudes are more likely to support a new party, whether or not it supports populist discourse. This suggests that the new parties offer a potential for positive identification to voters with populist attitudes. If the new movements had not offered any identification to voters who turned away from traditional parties, then these populist-minded individuals would probably have given up on the ballot box altogether.

Figure: Planned intention to vote for Ciudadanos and Podemos

To note: For more information, see the accompanying author’s article in West European Politics

The figure shows how populist attitudes influence voting intentions for new parties in interaction with left-right ideology. It focuses on the strongest and weakest populist attitudes. It turns out that the likelihood of individuals on the left and the right with strong populist attitudes intending to vote for Podemos is about the same. The new populist parties seem able to attract populist voters who do not fully share their thick ideological stance.

Conversely, respondents with strong populist attitudes are less likely to intend to vote for right-wing Ciudadanos if they place themselves on the left side of the ideological scale. The more the respondents move to the right, the greater the influence exerted by populist attitudes on the probability of voting for Ciudadanos. Politico-ideological congruence therefore plays an important role in explaining why some populist individuals intend to vote for a new non-populist political party.

To take with

New knowledge about post-crisis electoral behavior is likely to refine our understanding of the reasons for the weakening of traditional parties in favor of new ones. In Spain as elsewhere, the post-2008 elections resulted in increased vote fragmentation, instability and political polarization. Knowing the causes of these dynamics can increase our understanding of the trends shaping the development of democratic politics in the near future.

Overall, our study suggests that new political parties can connect with the electorate beyond the sheer economic consequences of the crisis. Here, the emergence of new parties can be seen as the expression of the deep structural transformations taking place in West European political systems, catalyzed by the Great Recession. Therefore, new parties may survive even in times of economic prosperity, although new challenges may arise in the form of problems of institutionalization or their ability to constantly mobilize on populist attitudes.

For a longer discussion on this topic, see the authors’ recent article in West European Politics

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Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the authors

Hugo Marcos-Marne – University of St. Gallen
Hugo Marcos-Marne is a postdoctoral researcher at the Chair of Comparative Politics, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Carolina Plaza-Colodro – University of Salamanca
Carolina Plaza-Colodro is a doctoral candidate at the University of Salamanca, Spain.

Tina Freybourg – University of St. Gallen
Tina Freyburg is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.


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