Learning at Home and Abroad: How Competition Conditions the Diffusion of Party Strategies

(with Laron K. Williams)

How do parties decide about when to campaign on valence issues given high degrees of uncertainty? Although research provides empirical evidence for transnational emulation of position-taking strategies among parties, these findings do not directly apply to the parties’ saliency strategies. Moreover, the exact diffusion mechanism remains largely elusive. Based on the issue saliency literature, we develop novel propositions and argue that conscious learning enables parties to mitigate uncertainty by allowing them to infer the relative utility of emphasizing consensual issues during an electoral campaign. Importantly, our theory gives rise to different expectations at the domestic and the transnational level because of the distinct logic of issue competition. Empirically, we examine the manifestos of non-green parties with regards to their emphasis on the environment — a valence issue with a niche party being the unequivocal issue owner — in 25 EU countries from 1975 to 2015. The results reveal direct transnational dependencies and indirect spillover effects among the parties’ saliency strategies. We further identify conscious learning rather than mere imitation or independent decision-making as the transnational diffusion mechanism at work. Yet, in line with saliency-based theories, electoral competition mutes the diffusion of electoral strategies. While efforts to learn from successful parties abroad may reap electoral success, emulation at the domestic level is a recipe for failure.

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