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Marc Hooghe and Ruth Dassonneville, "Party members as an electoral linking mechanism: An election forecasting model for political parties in Belgium, 1981-2010," Party Politics, 20 (May 2014), 368-380. [Available at http://ppq.sagepub.com/content/vol20/issue3/ ]

First paragraph:
In almost all Western democracies, political parties are rapidly losing members (Mair and van Biezen, 2001; Whiteley, 2011). The statistical evidence suggests that the phenomenon can be documented in most countries, while the various party families all seem to be equally affected (Dalton et al., 2000). The decline, furthermore, does not remain limited to passive membership, but is also clearly present among formerly active party members (Heidar and Saglie, 2003; Whiteley, 2009). While all the statistical evidence suggests that there is indeed an erosion of party membership, there is ongoing debate within the academic literature about the likely consequences of this trend. Some authors assume that the trend is just another indication of the structural evolution toward a cartel party or a professional-electoral party. Others, however, are concerned about the possible consequences of this trend, and argue that a solid membership basis remains an important linkage mechanism for political parties (Scarrow, 1996; Whiteley, 2009). This latter claim, however, often remains unsubstantiated. Whiteley (2009: 254), for example, notes that the percentage of the population that is a member of a political party is positively correlated with government effectiveness in that country. The study, however, does not detail a causal mechanism that could help us explain this relation.

Figures and Tables:
Table 1. Elections and incumbent parties included in the analysis.
Table 2. Optimal time lag between party membership and election results.
Table 3. Optimal economic indicator for election result forecasting.
Table 4. Optimal economic indicator - interaction effects.
Table 5. Forecasting electoral results of incumbent parties.
Table 6. Pearson correlations between forecasting models absolute errors and time.
Table 7. Out-of-sample diagnostics without oldest elections.
Table 8. Out-of-sample diagnostics and prediction errors when parties are left out
Appendix 1. Vote-shares and party membership figures.
Appendix 2. Economic variables: GDP, unemployment and the PM du
Appendix 3. Absolute errors of forecasting models and the time variable

Last Paragraph:
(first paragraph of discussion) Do political parties still have an interest in investing in their membership? Authors such as Susan Scarrow and Paul Whiteley have argued that members still provide a strong linkage mechanism to political parties, and as such cannot be replaced by more modern campaign techniques. The empirical evidence for this 'nostalgic' look on the era of mass parties, however, thus far has remained rather limited. In this article we have demonstrated that figures on party membership allow us to predict electoral outcomes quite precisely, at least for incumbent political parties. This suggests that members do remain important as an electoral linkage mechanism for political parties. Since we considered figures for the entire 1981-2010 period, we can even demonstrate quite clearly that during these three decades the importance of membership figures has not declined at all. Apparently, members remain as important as ever for Belgian political parties.

Last updated April 2014