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Anke Tresch, Jonas Lefevere and Stefaan Wallgrave, "Steal me if you can!' The impact of camapign messages on asociative issue ownership" Party Politics, 21 (March 2015), 198-208. [Available at]

First paragraph:

In times of loosening ties between political parties and their voters – as reflected in weakening party identification, declining membership rates and increasing electoral volatility across Western European countries (e.g. Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000) – the concept of ‘issue ownership’ has recently gained prominence in the study of both electoral behaviour (e.g. Bélanger and Meguid, 2008Belucci, 2006Green and Hobolt, 2008van der Brug, 2004) and party competition (e.g. Damore, 2004Holian, 2004Sides, 2006;Sigelman and Buell, 2004Walgrave and de Swert, 2007Walgrave et al., 2009). Issue ownership refers to the fact that political parties are, in the minds of voters, associated with specific issues, and considered as best able to deal with them (Budge and Farlie, 1983Petrocik, 1996). The issue ownership theory formulates two expectations: First, political parties and their candidates have incentives to focus their campaign efforts on issues for which they hold a reputation of competence – the so-called owned issues – and to sidestep or downplay issues that play to the advantage of their opponents. Second, the theory expects voters to make their choices by evaluating the competence that each party has in handling the issue(s) that dominated the agenda at election time, and to cast their vote for the issue owner.

Figures and Table

Table 1: Experimental conditions and number of exposed respondents
Table 2: Effects of exposure on associative issue ownership (AIO) scores, per condition

Last Paragraph:

Our study has several limitations. The most important is that, in our design, party presidents could choose their own statement, as long as it focused on the correct issue (e.g. the environment). This introduces a possible confounding factor in our design: Parties were free to select some arguments and avoid others as long as their arguments were on topic. Some parties may have been more careful in selecting arguments that avoided traditional arguments brought to the fore by the issue owner, whereas others may have inadvertently used arguments that were similar to the owner’s arguments. Given that such different framings of an issue can have substantial effects on the public’s view on the issue and the party (Slothuus, 2010), the impact of exactly what was being said in the stimulus should not be neglected. However, we see no immediate solution to this problem – parties should be able to present their policy position, even in an experiment. Furthermore, to make a strong statement requires that the parties are given some liberty in formulating it. Second, the panel included many highly educated respondents whose attitudes may have been more resistant to party messages (Zaller, 1992). Given that our sample had only some less educated respondents, it makes it hard to fully account for this possibility. Future studies using more diverse samples should investigate whether less educated respondents are less resistant to these party messages. Third, respondents were exposed only once to a short stimulus of thirty seconds. In real-world campaigns, citizens are repeatedly exposed to parties’ issue messages and we cannot be certain that enduring trespassing efforts have no effect either. Interestingly, using a similarly short stimulus, Walgrave et al. (2009) did find significant effects of issue trespassing on competence issue ownership evaluations. Thus, associative issue ownership might be a more stable party stereotype than issue competence evaluations, and therefore more resistant to change. Findings by Norpoth and Buchanan (1992) suggest that even sustained campaign trespassing efforts have little effect because they fail to erase the long-term party stereotypes on which voters rely. Nevertheless, as research on associative issue ownership is still very scarce, we encourage designs investigating the effects of repeated messages over a longer period of time. Fourth, the study only focused on two issues and four parties. That both issues used in this study were valence issues, may have affected our findings. For one, it may be the case that valence issues are more strongly ‘owned’ in the associative sense. For valence issues, the direction of a party’s position on an issue is probably less important, and merely the attention a party places on an issue determines its associative issue ownership. In that sense, associative issue ownership of valence issues may be more robust than associative ownership of position issues. Consequently, we may have found different results had we relied on position issues. Future studies are therefore strongly encouraged to address this question.

Last updated March 2015