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Party Politics

The multidimensional nature of party competition

Jeremy J. Albright
Party Politics 2010 16: 699 originally published online 22 March 2010
DOI: 10.1177/1354068809345856

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Party Politics
16(6) 699719
The multidimensional The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission:
nature of party
DOI: 10.1177/1354068809345856


Jeremy J. Albright
University of Michigan, USA

Leftright is a convenient tool for summarizing the complexities of voterparty linkages
in a manner that is comparable across contexts and that avoids the pathologies of
preference aggregation in higher dimensions. Yet several reasons exist to believe that
leftright is increasingly incapable of summarizing political behavior: the inability of
leftright to capture policy concerns beyond economics and religion; the accumulation
of new issue concerns over time; pressures for policy convergence stemming from
the globalization of the world economy; and the decline of social cleavages that
historically structured vote choice. This paper shows that parties are indeed talking
about a growing number of issues, they are converging on the leftright scale, and the
ideological cues they are sending to voters are growing increasingly ambiguous. Social
democratic parties have in particular been affected by these trends.

ideological stance, industrialized democracies, leftright classification, measurement,
party change/adaptation

Paper submitted 23 April 2008; accepted for publication 24 September 2008

In models of party behavior and voterelite linkages, comparative political scientists

often prefer to constrain analysis to a single policy dimension in order to maximize the
comparability of measurements across countries and minimize problems of cyclical
social choice preference orderings (Huber and Powell, 1994). Consequently, empirical
tests of models relating to coalition formation (Laver and Schofield, 1990), campaign
strategies (Budge, 1994), voterparty congruence (Powell, 2000), and extremist parties
(Adams et al., 2006) often assume a single ideological dimension. However, it is not hard

Corresponding author:
Jeremy J. Albright, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, University of Michigan, PO
Box 1248, Ann Arbor, MI 48106, USA. Email:

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700 Party Politics 16(6)

to imagine that collapsing the complexity of political competition to one axis can obfus-
cate a great deal of relevant phenomena. Surprisingly, very little work exists that
attempts to document just how much information is lost.1
Indeed, there are several reasons to believe that inadequacies in the unidimensional
leftright scale have always existed and are actually increasing over time. To begin,
leftright has always best summarized positions on the class and religious cleavages while
being a much poorer guide to stances on regional, linguistic, or related conflicts (Inglehart
and Klingemann, 1976). What is more, elites are constantly attempting to introduce new
issues into the debate, either in order to disrupt existing voting coalitions (Riker, 1986) or
because the public begins demanding attention to novel policy concerns (Inglehart, 1990).
The cumulative effect of the continuous addition of new issues is that, to the extent that a
single dimension ever could describe a countrys politics, it becomes less able to do so as a
democracy matures. In addition, increased unemployment since the 1970s has diminished
tax revenues (Huber and Stephens, 2001) while globalization has made capital increasingly
mobile (Simmons, 1999). Both of these trends have put constraints on the types of policies
governments can pursue and have created pressures for leftist and rightist parties to pro-
mote isomorphic election platforms. Finally, cleavages that once structured party compe-
tition have diminished in importance (Franklin et al., 1992), leading parties to stake out
increasingly vague ideological positions so as to alienate neither their shrinking base nor
the growing cadre of independents. The upshot of all of these trends has been that party
competition is coming to take place within a vaguely defined multidimensional space.
This paper will analyze party-level data from the Comparative Manifestos Project
(CMP) (Budge et al., 2001; Klingemann et al., 2007) in several novel ways in order
to show that the issue space has grown increasingly complex. First, principal components
analysis of the CMP data pooled completely and by individual countries reveals that, at a
generous minimum, four dimensions are required to explain a reasonable amount of var-
iance in the policy positions of parties. Second, a count of the number of issue categories
parties reference in their campaign manifestos shows a steady linear increase across the
available time series for most parties. Third, analyzing party ideological scores obtained
by the vanilla method of Gabel and Huber (2000) reveals a rightward lurch of social
democratic parties beginning in the late 1970s, suggesting that the class divisions that
once separated party families have eroded in favor of convergence at the center-right.
Finally, confidence intervals obtained from bootstrapping factor scores indicate a defi-
nite decrease in the clarity of the meaning of leftright, particularly for social democrats.
The paper develops as follows. The next section elaborates more fully on the evolu-
tion of the meaning of leftright and develops the hypotheses to be tested. The subse-
quent section justifies the use of the CMP data to test the predictions, and the results
of the analysis follow. A final section reviews the findings and their consequences for
models of voterparty linkages.

Ideology in the advanced democracies

Left and right
The terms left and right have their origins in the French Revolution, when the liberals
opposing the Ancien Regime sat on the left side of the legislative assembly and the

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Jeremy J. Albright 701

pro-royalist conservatives sat to the right. At the time, the liberals were bourgeois intel-
lectuals who objected to the involvement of the state in economic affairs, although left
right was more about political differences than economic ones. In the 19th century,
however, socialism and communism developed into the revolutionary ideologies of
Europe and became synonymous with leftist politics. Leftright consequently came
to primarily distinguish positions on questions of economic redistribution. In addition,
Marxs hostility to the Church also inspired an enduring element of anticlericalism on
the dimension (Inglehart and Klingemann, 1976).
Journalistic accounts of elections continue to frequently make reference to leftright,
and political scientists often use the simplifying assumption of unidimensional conflict
to test their theories. The attractiveness of the leftright dimension to comparative scho-
lars is twofold. First, leftright scores are available for both parties and voters, and the
estimates are at least theoretically comparable across time and country. Indeed, Budge
et al. (2001) estimated leftright scores with a method that assumed that issues typically
associated with the left and those typically associated with the right were the same in
every country under consideration. Despite this strong assumption, the authors were able
to validate the resulting estimates against the historical record. In addition, Gabel and
Huber (2000) considered the utility of using latent variable scores obtained from a factor
analysis of the Budge et al. data as indicators of leftright. They explored the results from
several different data-pooling mechanisms (across years within countries, across coun-
tries within time periods, and across both time and countries) but ultimately came to the
conclusion that the scores which most closely corresponded to expert judgments (their
benchmark for validation) were those obtained from pooling all countries and years
together into a single analysis.
The second reason for using the unidimensional leftright conceptualization is that it
avoids the well-known pathologies that can occur when one attempts to aggregate pre-
ferences of multiple actors in more than one dimension. With a single dimension the
median voter theorem guarantees a Condorcet winner, which greatly facilitates analysis
of the functioning of democratic institutions. In fact, this was the motivation behind
Huber and Powells (1994) decision to compare the leftright locations of governments
with those of the median voter. They argued that, Without something like this single
dimension for competition and discourse, it is at best very difficult perhaps even con-
ceptually impossible to compare citizen preferences with the promises and actions of
the policymakers (Huber and Powell, 1994: 294). As a consequence of such social
choice theoretic considerations, comparisons of party and voter preferences typically
occur on the single leftright axis.
Among voters, the utility of leftright lies in its potential for use as a heuristic to sim-
plify the political world. Fuchs and Klingemann (1990) argue that voters may have
poorly structured belief systems (in the sense of Converse [1964]), but they nonetheless
effectively use leftright to distinguish between binary choices such as capitallabor,
communismfascism, secularreligious, and so on. Thus, although the historic experiences
of the western democracies have imbued the dimension with a specific meaning that
scholars understand far better than the public, the relevance of leftright for mass political
behavior comes from the concepts ability to dichotomize conflict for those with less
interest in politics.

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702 Party Politics 16(6)

The multidimensional nature of party competition

However, the extent to which the leftright heuristic is a reliable guide for voters or for
political scientists, for that matter depends on the extent to which a diversity of issues
are collapsible to one dimension, binary or otherwise. Indeed, there are several reasons to
believe that, to the extent it ever could adequately describe politics in the advanced
democracies, the single dimensional representation of competition is becoming increas-
ingly inadequate. First, issues not related to class or religion have never mapped easily
onto leftright. Countries that have strong regionalist or linguistic movements often pro-
duce parties representing the different national identities as a consequence of the inca-
pacity of class- and religious-based parties to adequately channel nationalist conflict.
The extent of ethnic heterogeneity is known to be an important factor affecting the frag-
mentation of the party system (Cox, 1997; Ordeshook and Shvetsova, 1994). This
empirical regularity would not occur if leftright could adequately incorporate national-
ist sentiments. This leads to a first hypothesis: one dimension will fail to capture much of
the variance in the issue positions of parties.
What is more, leftright has likely experienced a diminution in its ability to summar-
ize politics even in more nationally homogeneous countries. Class, religion, and nation-
alism were the primary controversies around which most major parties originally formed
(Lipset and Rokkan, 1967). However, politicians are continuously introducing new
issues into the debate for two important reasons.
First, one party may find the current structure of voter loyalties to be unfavorable and
will therefore attempt to introduce a new controversy in hopes of mobilizing more vot-
ers. This is the strategy that William Riker (1986) named heresthetics, the art of struc-
turing choices to produce a desired outcome. Second, the larger social context may
evolve, causing voters to focus on novel policy questions. The rise of Green parties in
Europe developed out of concern with environmental issues and a belief that the tradi-
tional parties were structurally unfit (i.e. too oligarchic) to address the problem
(Kitschelt, 1989). This created a tension particularly for old left parties who found them-
selves conflicted between their traditional working-class base and the interests of
younger white-collar citizens expressing more libertarian values (Kitschelt, 1994).
Whether because they are being proactive or reactive, parties should be expected to
address an increasing number of issues over time. This leads to a second hypothesis: par-
ties will, over the course of many elections, increase the number of issues they address
during a given campaign.
The macro-structural context in which parties and coalitions govern has also evolved
over time, creating constraints on the types of policies governments can pursue. Histori-
cally, social democratic parties have been closely associated with support for the welfare
state. The size of state-sponsored insurance programs expanded dramatically following
the Second World War as governments enjoyed sizable tax revenues from the booming
post-war economies. However, Huber and Stephens (2001) document how the upward tra-
jectories of state-spending faced substantial pressures to moderate when the oil shocks and
economic downturns of the 1970s occurred. Increasing unemployment reduced state rev-
enues, thus ending the Golden Era of the welfare state and creating pressures for welfare
retrenchment (Korpi and Palme, 2003). In addition, the globalization of the economy has

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Jeremy J. Albright 703

made capital more mobile, which has reduced the power of workers vis-a-vis their
employers (Simmons, 1999). Thus, due to multiple changes in the economies of the
advanced democracies, parties can no longer enjoy as much leeway in the types of policies
they may pursue in order to promote growth and employment. There are consequently
pressures for political candidates from the left and the right to converge in the types of pol-
icies they propose. Because social democratic parties historically promoted the types of
high-spending policy solutions that globalization and diminished tax revenues constrain,
they should feel particularly strong pressures to alter their positions on the leftright scale.
An additional hypothesis is therefore that parties will be seen to be converging to a point at
the right-of-center of the traditional leftright scale.
Finally, the locations of parties on the leftright scale are only consequential to the
extent that voters are able to determine actual candidate positions. Yet a sizable literature
discusses incentives elites may feel to hide their true preferences. Anthony Downs was
among the first to assert that candidates can attempt to becloud their policies in a fog of
ambiguity so as not to alienate potential voters (Downs, 1957: 136). Shepsle (1972) for-
malized the argument of Downs to define specific circumstances under which elites may
obscure their policy positions, while Page (1976) elaborated his own theory of issue
ambiguity which argued that politicians will often seek to talk about anything but policy.
Campbell (1983) and Bartels (1986) tested implications from these theories and found
evidence that nebulous statements on the part of candidates can indeed impact voters
behavior at the ballot box.
In a particularly creative analysis, Franklin (1991) took this issue further and assumed
that the variance in responses to questions about candidate positions could be used as an
indicator of how clearly voters understood each partys policy stances. He employed a
heteroskedastic regression estimator to model the effects of candidate strategy on the
variance parameter of each individuals likelihood.2 Franklin found that intentional
ambiguity by candidates indeed affected the clarity with which individuals received
political messages. Thus, Page (1976: 749) appears to have been correct when he
asserted that the candidates best strategy is to avoid issues of a divisive sort, and place
(as nearly as possible) no emphasis on them, but devote all his time, money, and energy
to matters of consensus. These matters of consensus, he noted, are typically non-
policy issues such as candidate image.
The literature on the evolution of social democratic party fortunes suggests that left-
of-center parties may have particularly strong incentives to obfuscate their policy inten-
tions during a campaign. The historical class and religious cleavages that once strongly
structured voter loyalties to specific parties have clearly eroded (Franklin et al., 1992),
which has robbed all parties of an unambiguously defined base to mobilize. In particular,
the working class that used to constitute the core of the social democratic base has dimin-
ished in size and been replaced by a new middle class with its own unique set of values
and policy preferences (Kitschelt, 1994). The changing distribution of wealth has led to
the rise of left-libertarian parties (e.g. ecology parties) that compete with older leftist
parties for supporters (Kitschelt, 1989). As a consequence, social democratic parties
must now maintain a careful balancing act to keep both their traditional but shrinking
base satisfied while at the same time appealing to a sufficient number of middle-class
voters. The decision of the German Social Democrats during the 2002 campaign to

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704 Party Politics 16(6)

emphasize its response to domestic flooding and opposition to the impending war in Iraq,
rather than its controversial economic reform agenda, is one example of this phenom-
enon. The extent to which social democratic parties more broadly are increasingly likely
to obfuscate is an empirical question.
Thus, two final hypotheses can be explored. First, because the disappearance of clas-
sical cleavages affects the ability of all parties to identify a core base to mobilize, one
should expect that the location of parties on the leftright scale will become more diffi-
cult to ascertain over time. Second, because leftist parties face the most significant pres-
sures to alter their traditional policy positions, one should expect that social democratic
parties will exhibit a particularly strong diminution in the clarity of their leftright

Data and methods

The hypotheses outlined above all relate to characteristics of parties and their evolution
over time. Data from the Comparative Manifestos Project therefore provide the most
appropriate source of indicators for testing them. The CMP data have been constructed
through the content-coding of parties official campaign statements in a growing number
of countries dating back to the end of the Second World War. Each sentence or quasi-
sentence has been coded into one of 56 different issue categories, with the percentage
of total sentences devoted to a specific category reflecting the extent to which that issue
is a priority for the party in question (Budge et al., 2001; Klingemann et al., 2007).
The coding strategy is based on saliency theory, which argues that political candidates
do not confront each other directly on issues but rather prefer to emphasize only the pol-
icy domains on which they feel they are advantaged.3 However, many of the issue cate-
gories do in fact include positional indicators. For example, Welfare State Expansion
and Welfare State Limitation constitute two of the 56 categories, as do Traditional
Morality: Negative and Traditional Morality: Positive. Thus, several scholars have
been willing to use the CMP to determine leftright positions, despite the fact that sal-
iency theory motivated the coding methodology.
What is more, users of the CMP data have taken steps to validate the resulting scores
by various means (Budge and Klingemann, 2001; Gabel and Huber, 2000). Validity and
reliability assessments are underemployed in political science in general (Adcock and
Collier, 2001), but CMP indicators are one notable exception at least in terms of vali-
dation. The CMP data have admittedly faced more recent challenges in terms of their
reliability, with researchers such as Benoit et al. (2009) showing a substantial amount
of measurement error to be present in the estimates. However, studying variance in the
reliability of the scores can be fruitful in its own right. It is possible to exploit the var-
iance in uncertainty surrounding the leftright estimates to extract information about the
clarity with which parties are making their appeals to voters.
The CMP data file comes with a variable summarizing leftright positions of all par-
ties in the sample computed according to the method of Budge et al. (2001). The esti-
mates, however, do not come accompanied with any measure of uncertainty, which
makes it difficult to discern the extent to which one estimate is significantly different
from another. Fortunately, bootstrapping provides a simple means of arriving at

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Jeremy J. Albright 705

estimates of uncertainty around any statistic (Efron and Tibshirani, 1993). The analysis
below will therefore rely on estimates and confidence intervals based on 500 bootstrap
iterations of the factor analytic method proposed by Gabel and Huber (2000). The esti-
mates were obtained by drawing 500 samples with replacement from the CMP data,
constructing separate factor models for each sample, and using each model to estimate
the factor scores from the original data. The means of the resulting distribution of scores
are used as leftright estimates, and the size of the 95 percent confidence intervals are
employed as measures of uncertainty.4

Explaining variance in issue positions
As noted previously, Gabel and Huber (2000) performed factor analysis on the CMP data
in order to produce latent variable scores that could be used as indicators of leftright.
Interestingly, although a common approach to conducting a factor analysis is to first
carry out a principal components analysis (PCA) and examine the resulting eigenvalues,
Gabel and Huber do not report results from any such estimation. This exclusion is cur-
ious given that an examination of the eigenvalues generated by a PCA can offer insights
into the amount of variance present in the data and the extent to which a single factor
solution is appropriate.
In a PCA, the first component represents a transformation that will account for the max-
imal amount of total variation possible in the variables; the second is chosen to be ortho-
gonal to the first component while accounting for the maximal amount of the remaining
variance; and so on until the total variance is accounted for, with the number of principal
components equaling the number of variables. An often employed heuristic for determin-
ing the number of latent variables underlying a larger set of observed variables is to con-
sider the number of eigenvalues that are greater than one. A second heuristic is to examine
how much variance is explained by each additional component. A third approach is to look
at scree plots graphs which plot the size of the eigenvalues by each additional principal
component and choose a point where the numbers appear to level off.5
Figure 1 displays scree plots that result from carrying out a PCA on the pooled
data and by individual country (pooling across years) for Britain, Germany, Italy, the
Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. These countries are chosen to represent a
diversity in electoral laws and levels of party system fragmentation, but inferences do
not change if one considers other advanced democracies represented in the CMP data.
Table 1 summarizes results from the PCA and an examination of the scree plots. The
first heuristic finding the number of eigenvalues greater than one makes clear that one
principal component does not account for a sufficient amount of the variance in CMP
scores to justify the assumption of a single dimension. In every case the eigenvalues
do not fall below one until somewhere between the 20th and 30th component (the
48th component for the pooled data!), providing no evidence that analysts should assume
that a single underlying axis drives policy positions.
The second heuristic considers how many components are needed to explain a given
amount of variance in the data. Table 1 presents the number of components necessary to
explain 75 percent of the variance, which is an arbitrarily high amount but which also

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706 Party Politics 16(6)

Figure 1. Scree plots for comparative manifestos project data

allows for fully one-quarter of the variance to remain unexplained. The results of the
PCA found that the number of components necessary to account for 75 percent of the
total variance in the pooled data is 18; in Britain the number is 11; in Germany it is
10; in Italy and the Netherlands it is 9; in Norway and Spain it is 7; and in Sweden it
is 8. In each country and in the pooled data, a quarter of the variance remains to be
explained even after the creation of, at the very least, seven principal components.
If one uses the more generous rule-of-thumb that looks for the point at which the scree
plots flatten out, one still comes to the conclusion that a single dimension is inappropriate.
The graph for the pooled data shows the plot flattening out somewhere around the eighth
component. In Britain and Germany, this occurs at about the sixth component; and in the
Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden it occurs with the fifth component. At a
very generous minimum, the results of the PCA suggest retaining at least four factors.
Note that the purpose of performing PCA on the CMP data was not to definitively deter-
mine the number of policy dimensions present in a given country. As will be shown, a con-
crete and time-invariant answer is very difficult to arrive at. The hypothesis being tested is


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Jeremy J. Albright 707

Table 1. Results from principal components analysis of CMP data

Number of eigenvalues Components needed to Component around

Country greater than one explain 75% of variance which scree levels out

Pooled Data 48 18 8
Britain 27 11 6
Germany 29 10 6
Italy 33 9 5
Netherlands 25 9 5
Norway 23 7 5
Spain 19 7 5
Sweden 30 8 5

simply that a single dimension leaves a substantial amount of variance in issue positions
unexplained. By all interpretations of the results this prediction is well supported.
It is also worth noting that Benoit and Laver (2006) perform a similar analysis of
eigenvalues from a PCA on results from expert surveys. Their conclusions also pointed
to multidimensionality in most (but not all) countries they considered, though the extent
of the high dimensionality was not as severe in their analysis. The differences in results
relate in large part to the type of data being analyzed. The expert surveys had far fewer
issue categories and represented a single point in time. Thus, there is substantially more
variance in the CMP data, and it should not be surprising that results here suggest greater
complexity to the issue space.

Counts of issue references

Pooling the data over time is necessary to obtain sufficient variance to conduct a princi-
pal components analysis for a specific country, but doing so masks dynamics. Is there
reason to believe that the issue space is becoming more complex, that is, more multidi-
mensional, over time? To answer this question, Figures 2 and 3 summarize the number of
different issue categories specific parties have referenced in a given campaign document.
The scores were obtained by adding the number of issue categories that received any ref-
erence at all in a given manifesto. A score of one means that a party only talked about a
single issue during a campaign. In theory the highest score is 56, which would mean that a
party discussed every single issue category coded in the CMP data file (although no party
actually did so). The results show a consistent increase in the number of issue categories
referenced over the span of the latter half of the 20th century.
Figure 2 displays the least squares line fitted to a regression of issue counts on year. It
also displays a confidence interval around the predicted line estimated via the simulation
method of King et al. (2000). The line shows that the average number of issues parties
typically reference during a campaign has increased steadily since the 1940s. The coef-
ficient estimate, displayed in the graph, was 0.1665 (p < .001). This means that the typ-
ical party added another issue to its platform almost every six years (6  .1665  1). The
typical manifesto referenced a little over 20 issues at the start of the series, but this num-
ber increased to nearly 30 by the start of the 21st century.

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708 Party Politics 16(6)

Figure 2. Count of issue references: pooled CMP data

Figure 3 breaks things down by country and party. The numbers jump around accord-
ing to the party in question, but the overall trends display a rather clear movement
upwards. The betas in each graph again correspond to the coefficient of a regression
of issue count on year in the respective country. In Britain, the expected increase in issue
counts from 1950 to 2000 is thus 50  .0805 4.025. That is, British parties can be
expected to be talking about four more issues in the year 2000 than they had been talking
about in 1950. This increase is actually modest compared to some of the other countries.
In Germany, the expected increase in issue references from 1950 to 2000 is .3683  50
18.415 issues; in Italy the increase is .1509  50 7.545 issues; in the Netherlands it is
.2031  50 10.155 issues; in Norway it is .2823  50 14.115 issues; in Sweden it is
.0613  50 3.065 issues; and in the United States it is .1404  50 7.02 issues. Even in
Spain, where democracy only emerged following the death of Franco in 1975, the
increase in issue counts over the first 25 years since the transition has been .3538 
25 8.845. These estimates are significant at the .05 level in every country but Britain
and Sweden; in Britain the coefficient is significant at the .10 level.
Parties are clearly talking about more issues today than they did in the past. It may be
the case that each new issue which candidates address falls neatly onto the leftright axis,
but this seems rather unlikely. The scree plots in the previous section showed that one
dimension leaves a substantial amount of variance unexplained, and the addition of each
new issue only demands more of leftright. At best, leftright will continue to summar-
ize issue positions, but it will do so with an increasing amount of error due to the growing
number of issues relevant to campaigns.


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Jeremy J. Albright 709

Figure 3. Count of issue references by country


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710 Party Politics 16(6)

Movement on the leftright scale

As parties talk about more and more issues, there is also reason to believe that there are
increasing constraints on the types of policy promises parties can make. These con-
straints, stemming from limited resources and globalization, should be particularly con-
sequential for the programs of social democratic parties. If this is the case, then one
should observe a trend toward convergence on the leftright scale. In particular, one
should observe leftist parties veering to the right following the oil shocks and economic
downturns of the 1970s.
Spline models are useful for determining if trends change at one or more given points
in time, making them appropriate to investigate hypotheses about shifts in ideology dur-
ing distinct periods. The idea is to fit a separate line to each interval by applying a func-
tion, (u), to the time variable such that:
u; if u > k
0; if u  k

where (u) is typically (time  k) and k is the point in time chosen as the knot (the point
at which the trend changes). The original time metric and the transformed metric are then
included as separate variables in a regression, with the coefficient for the former corre-
sponding to the trend before the knot and the latter measuring the trend thereafter. In the
case of a linear spline with a single knot, it is useful to transform the original time metric
such that the intercept corresponds to the expected outcome score at the knot. For this
analysis, the following transformations were applied to the year variable. First:

1975  Year 1975  Year if Year  1975
0 otherwise

Year  1975 1975  Year if Year > 1975
0 otherwise

The choice of year corresponds to the time at which the Golden Era of the welfare
state was reaching its end due to the economic shocks of the 1970s. One should therefore
expect pressures for moderation to build on leftist parties roughly around the middle of
that decade. Table 2 displays results for a baseline spline model, which regresses left
right scores on the transformed time variables. It also displays results from an interactive
model, in which a dummy for social democratic parties is interacted with each transfor-
mation. Due to the centering, a negative coefficient on the (1975 Year) variable
means that the scores are increasing (shifting to the right) as they move forward in time
toward 1975. A positive coefficient on the (Year 1975) variable means that the scores
also increase as one moves forward in time from 1975.
Looking at the baseline model, one sees that estimates were very gradually moving to
the left at a non-significant rate of .002 per year before 1975. At 1975, the expected
ideology score for a typical manifesto was 6.173 on the 10-point scale. Following

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Jeremy J. Albright 711

Table 2. Linear spline models of leftright estimates with knot at 1975

Parameter Baseline model Model with social democratic interaction

Intercept 6.173* 6.327*

(0.049) (0.056)
(1975 Year) 0.002 0.004
(0.003) (0.004)
(Year 1975) 0.030* 0.025*
(0.003) (0.004)
Social Democrat 0.558*
Social Democrat X 0.001
(1975 Year) (0.008)
Social Democrat X 0.015y
(Year 1975) (0.008)
* Represents significance at the .05 level.
y Represents significance at the .10 level.

1975, parties begin moving to the right at a rate of about .030 points per year, which is
significant at the .05 level.
The interactive model meanwhile shows a non-significant movement to the left of .004
points per year prior to 1975 for non-social democratic parties. The social democratic inter-
action with the pre-1975 variable is also not significant. The average leftright score in 1975
for non-social democratic parties was 6.327; for social democrats it was 6.327  0.558
5.769. The dummy for social democratic parties is significant, which simply means that
social democrats sat significantly to the left of the average of all other families. Following
1975, the average non-social democratic party began moving to the right at a statistically
significant rate of .025 points per year. The rate of movement for social democratic parties
was 0.025 0.015 0.040 per year. The interaction is significant at the .10 level.
Figure 4 provides a more intuitive display of the results. The top panel includes a sin-
gle line plus a 95 percent confidence interval, again obtained through simulation. The
predicted regression line for the non-interactive model is essentially flat until 1975 and
then swings upwards, representing a shift to the right for the average leftright score.
Thus, it appears that the center of party competition has moved rightwards in the last
quarter of the 20th century.
The bottom panel includes two lines, plus their 95 percent confidence intervals, to
display the interactive effect of party family and year. The top line represents the pre-
dicted leftright score for non-social democratic parties and looks similar to the line
from the non-interactive model. The bottom line represents social democratic parties.
Like the average non-leftist party, social democratic parties began moving to the
right after 1975. However, the rightward swing of social democrats is much more
pronounced. In fact, by the end of the series the two regression lines nearly intersect,
and already by the early 1990s the confidence intervals overlap. Thus, leftist parties
have been growing increasingly difficult to discern from non-leftist parties since the
late 1970s.

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712 Party Politics 16(6)

Figure 4. Leftright scores by year: social democratic and non-social democratic parties

The clarity of leftright

It is one thing to talk about the locations of parties on a dimension, but it is another to talk
about the clarity with which they are sending ideological cues to voters. Measures of
uncertainty around leftright scores provide an indication as to how easy it is for voters
to identify where parties are located on the leftright scale. Because the erosion of clea-
vages has reduced incentives to mobilize specific cadres of voters, and because postmo-
dern issues may cut across classical dimensions of party competition, candidates are
likely making more ambiguous issue appeals so as to alienate as few potential supporters
as possible. If this is true, then one should observe an increase in the size of confidence
intervals surrounding leftright estimates.
As with the raw leftright scores, it is possible to fit spline models to the uncertainty
measures in order to ascertain the extent to which a break occurred. Table 3 presents results
for a baseline and an interactive model similar to the ones presented in Table 2, this time fit

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Jeremy J. Albright 713

Table 3. Linear spline models of uncertainty estimates with knot at 1975

Parameter Baseline model Model with social democratic interaction

Intercept 3.804* 3.943*

(0.046) (0.053)
(1975 Year) 0.015* 0.020*
(0.003) (0.004)
(Year 1975) 0.040* 0.032*
(0.003) (0.004)
Social Democrat 0.512*
Social Democrat X 0.019*
(1975 Year) (0.007)
Social Democrat X 0.013y
(Year 1975) (0.007)
* Represents significance at the .05 level.
y Represents significance at the .10 level.

to the bootstrap intervals. The year 1975 is again used as the knot to be consistent with
theory (the end of the Golden Era of the welfare state) and with Table 2.
The baseline model shows that the size of the 95 percent bootstrap confidence interval
for a typical party was increasing at a rate of about .015 points per year until 1975. In
1975, the average 95 percent confidence interval was 3.804 units wide. The trend toward
greater uncertainty in leftright estimates accelerated to .040 points per year thereafter.
Each of these estimates is significant at the .05 level.
In the interactive model, the increase in the size of the 95 percent bootstrap confi-
dence intervals for non-leftist parties was about .020 points per year before 1975, with
the trend accelerating to .032 per year after that. In 1975, the average confidence interval
spanned a range of about 3.943 on the 10-point scale for non-social democratic parties.
All of these estimates were significant at the .05 level.
Prior to 1975, social democrats actually exhibited a substantively tiny expected
decline of .020  .019 .001 per year in the width of their confidence intervals, with
the average width being 3.943  .512 3.431 in 1975. The differences between social
democratic parties and all other party families on both estimates are significant at the .05
level. The interaction between social democratic status and the post-1975 time variable
is also significant at the .10 level. Following 1975, the size of the confidence interval of
leftist parties was increasing at a rate of .032 .013 .045 per year.
Taken together, the results provide evidence that the meaning of leftright is becom-
ing less clear, especially for social democratic parties. After 1975, when leftist parties
first find themselves under pressure to moderate, they begin an increasingly difficult
struggle to provide clear cues to voters. However, they have not been the only parties
affected by the trend toward ideological ambiguity. Members of the remaining party
families also exhibit an increase in the size of the confidence intervals surrounding their
estimates over time.


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714 Party Politics 16(6)

This paper has argued that leftright conveniently provides comparable summaries of
party positions on some issues and avoids problems of cyclical preference aggregations.
However, these conveniences come at a large cost, as a substantial amount of variance in
policy preferences is left unexplained. The leftright super-issue has never summarized
positions on questions related to regionalism, nationalism and ethnicity at any point in
the 20th century. What is more, the steady accumulation of issues a result of heres-
thetics at the elite level and the emergence of new issues at the mass level has only
made unidimensional assumptions all the more difficult to maintain. In addition, con-
straints on state resources and the globalization of the world economy have meant that
parties are experiencing pressures to converge at a point to the right of the traditional
political center. Finally, the erosion of historic cleavages and the arrival of postmodern
issue concerns have made it difficult for parties to offer clear cues as to their ideological
locations. There is far greater ambiguity today about parties locations, especially for
left-of-center candidates. The analysis relied on a novel and detailed exploration of the
Comparative Manifestos Project data that included an examination of principal compo-
nents, counts of the number of distinct issue categories mentioned in a campaign, and
linear spline models. The findings taken together reinforce the argument that leftright
is steadily diminishing in its ability to summarize party behavior.
The results of this analysis are important for illuminating the consequences of assum-
ing unidimensionality when testing predictions about political behavior and assessing the
performance of democratic institutions. At the heart of democratic theory is the relation-
ship between citizens and leaders, with the purpose of elections being to create incen-
tives for elites to respond to the preferences of the mass public (Dahl, 1989).
Rigorous tests of the relationship between voter preferences and elite behavior require
quality data at both levels. Leftright is a convenient unit of comparison because ques-
tions about ideology are common in mass surveys, and party-level indicators are extrac-
table from the CMP. Unfortunately, the fact that leftright misses so much variance in
the messages parties are sending to voters means that it is difficult to formulate definitive
statements about the relative merits of one electoral system over another on the basis of
leftright scores alone.
In addition, the analysis has shown how the issue space has a tendency to become
increasingly complex over time. The general pattern across the eight different coun-
tries considered in this paper was for parties to accumulate issue concerns over mul-
tiple elections. In the mid 20th century it was sufficient for parties to make appeals
on a limited number of policy questions. As the years progressed, novel controver-
sies did not simply replace old ones but instead appear to have been introduced on
top of existing issues. Dynamic analyses of policy preferences should therefore be
sensitive to the fact that positions on specific dimensions can change, as can the sal-
ience of one dimension vis-a-vis another, and as can the total number of dimensions
present. The consistency of the results presented above suggests that time almost
inevitably produces greater complexity, though future research will need to explore
how universal such a conclusion is and why some cases are slower to accumulate
issue concerns than others.

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Jeremy J. Albright 715

Future research should also seek to better understand the meaning of the political
center. The results have shown that the center is not simply the mid point on a 7-, 10-,
or 11-point scale. Instead, the center shifts according to the contemporary context.
What was considered a centrist (i.e. typical) position on the leftright scale in 1970
was quite a bit to the left of the center in the early 21st century. The timing of the
movement appears to have coincided with the economic changes that helped bring
about the end of the Golden Era of the welfare state, which suggests that the policy
positions of parties are not purely a function of the preferences of party members and
voters but rather are also influenced in part by larger, macro-structural variables. If the
mass public prefers a generous welfare state, but economic constraints limit the extent
to which a government can deliver on those demands, there will be a disconnect
between the preferences of voters and the policies of the governing elites. This would
not mean that democracy is failing, but it does suggest that politicians will sometimes
be unable to deliver policies that the public desires for reasons other than the selfish
pursuit of their own interests.
There are some limitations to the analysis presented in this paper. First, the results
show that leftright is losing its ability to summarize policy positions in the advanced
democracies, but it does not take any definitive stand on what additional policy dimen-
sions are coming to supplement the classical axis of competition. Over the years there
have been countless attempts to give more specific descriptions of the policy space, and
these have typically used some form of factor analysis on party- or voter-level data
(Budge et al., 1987; Klingemann, 1995; Laver and Budge, 1992; Laver and Hunt,
1992; Robertson, 1976). Various types of factor analysis have been used so often that
they are perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns, and the interpretation of one
more set of factor loadings will in general not yield many new, definitive insights about
the structure of the policy space.6 Hence, none are presented here. The purpose of this
paper has been intentionally more modest. It has sought only to demonstrate that unidi-
mensional assumptions can be extremely superficial.
A second limitation of the paper is its assumption that measures of uncertainty around
leftright estimates are tapping elite strategies of obfuscation. This is not a novel
assumption; it has been used in work by Alvarez and Brehm (1995), Franklin (1991), and
others. However, other elements of uncertainty including measurement error may
also be present in these estimates. While it is probably a safe assumption that measure-
ment error is a constant, the methods used in this paper still cannot distinguish between
how much error relates to CMP coding and how much is a function of elite strategy.
Sufficient previous work exists to support the suggestion that candidates can be inten-
tionally ambiguous about their issue positions, but future research will be needed to
determine how to distinguish between uncertainty that is a methodological artifact and
uncertainty that is the result of purposive elite behavior.
Finally, none of this is to say that leftright is meaningless. On the contrary, the
scales durability speaks to its intuitive appeal and its helpfulness for providing rough
assessments about the positions of political actors. The purpose of this paper has been
to show what gets lost when one limits analysis to a single dimension. The complexity
of comparing the strategies of political actors in different contexts makes definitive state-
ments about the dimensionality of competition difficult. Questions about the number of

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716 Party Politics 16(6)

relevant dimensions are decades old, and with questionable progress having been made
toward a definitive answer, it is perhaps doubtful that a concrete, time-invariant conclu-
sion will ever emerge. Thus, empirical studies of political behavior and democratic insti-
tutions will need to carefully justify the decisions they make concerning the policy
domains assumed to be relevant and why more fully specified models are not

The author thanks Robert Rohrschneider and Amy Drayton, participants at the 2008 Midwest
Political Science Association annual meeting, two anonymous reviewers, and the Party Politics
editor for helpful comments.
1. Benoit and Laver (2006) is one recent exception.
2. Alvarez and Brehm (1995) take a similar approach to model uncertainty in the issue positions of
3. Applications of saliency theory that do not use CMP data include Hayes (2005), Petrocik
(1996), Robertson (1976), Sellers (1998) and Simon (2002).
4. Benoit et al. (2009) were the first to apply a bootstrapping algorithm to CMP data. However,
they interpreted the confidence intervals as summarizing measurement error from the coding
process rather than stemming from any intentional strategy on the part of elites. It is most likely
the case that uncertainty present in the estimates is the sum of both sources. The confidence
intervals examined later can thus be considered measures of party strategy plus an unknown
random component, which should not affect longitudinal comparisons.
5. The heuristics for PCA and factor analysis described in this section are drawn from Bartholomew
et al. (2002).
6. The approach of Benoit and Laver (2006), which uses a combination of a priori assumptions in
combination with expert suggestions and factor analysis, is one exception.

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Author Biography
Jeremy J. Albright is Research Investigator at the University of Michigans Inter-university
Consortium for Political and Social Research. His interests focus on measuring the issue pre-
ferences of elites and modeling the effect of declining social cleavages on party strategies. He
is also currently involved with a project exploring privacy risks in the public release of
microdata files.


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