How do voters navigate complex party systems? By taking shortcuts.

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Tyler Steelman, covers the new article by David Fortunato, University of California, San Diego, Nick C. N. Lin, Academia Sinica, Randolph T. Stevenson, Rice University and Mathias Wessel Tromborg, Aarhus University, “Attributing Policy Influence under Coalition Governance”.

Virtually every year, Americans travel to the polls to elect representatives at all levels of government. The frequency of elections, in part, allows American voters to hold their elected officials accountable for their behaviors, actions, and policies. Researchers studying electoral accountability have noted the reliance voters place on their own economic situations, their partisan preferences, and their general feelings towards the government in explaining how voters come to hold elected officials—and political parties—accountable for their actions.

For American voters, this process is somewhat simplified. When one political party controls both the legislative and executive branch (like the Democratically controlled U.S. government now) it can be somewhat clearer who is responsible for the levers of government action.

But what happens in government systems that are structured differently? How does the presence of multiple parties and coalitional governments shape the way voters hold their elected officials accountable?

David Fortunato, Nick C. N. Lin, Randolph T. Stevenson, and Mathias Wessel Tromborg examine how voters living in countries with coalition governments assign responsibility for policy outcomes in their new APSR article: “Attributing Policy Influence under Coalition Governance.” The authors find that voters make sense of their political world by making use of heuristics—or subconscious shortcuts aimed at reducing the effort required to make a decision—to determine which political parties are responsible for government action. Specifically, they find that voters use a party’s role in government and its seat share to infer responsibility for policy outcomes.

The authors conduct seven surveys across five countries to test their expectations. In the first analysis, the authors ask voters in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom how much influence they believe all political parties had on the outcomes of the legislative process. On average, and across all countries, the authors find voters are more likely to attribute policy responsibility to parties in cabinet, particularly the PM party, and parties with larger seat shares in the legislature.

If voters are to hold their leaders accountable, they must be able to determine who is responsible for the policy outputs of government.

In their second analysis, the authors look to the future by asking voters in two countries—the United Kingdom and Denmark—to forecast policy responsibility for hypothetical future governments. This approach allowed the authors to measure the implied policy influence of a party relative to the party’s role in the potential government.

Again, voters consistently attribute the most policy influence to prime ministerial partners and the least to opposition parties. While in Denmark, respondents viewed formal partners to the PM as more influential than external support parties, voters in the UK did not distinguish between the two. In the United Kingdom, voters are less familiar with coalitional governments and, as a result, have not developed heuristic cues for evaluating external support and junior partner parties. Although the findings in the United Kingdom diverge from those in Denmark, the result is still consistent with the expectations of the authors. Heuristics need to be effort-reducing and voters in the United Kingdom have no need to collect the same type of information as voters in Denmark. Where voters in the United Kingdom have more experience—with prime ministerial parties and opposition parties—they are more consistent in their evaluations.

If voters are to hold their leaders accountable, they must be able to determine who is responsible for the policy outputs of government. This can become complicated in multi-party systems where multiple parties simultaneously make up the governing coalition. Simple heuristic models, relying on cheap informational inputs—like a party’s seat share and their role in government—can help voters make sense of complex systems. Fortunato, Lin, Stevenson, and Tromborg find that not only can voters make sense of these complex party systems, but they do so in a way that is quick, simple, and (generally) accurate.


  • Tyler Steelman is a PhD candidate in American Politics and Political Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focus includes the study of surrogate representation and the development of legislative districts using ZIP codes in the United States. His work has been published in the Election Law JournalInterest Groups and Advocacy, and The Monkey Cage.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review Volume 115 Issue 1 , February 2021 , pp. 252 – 268, “Attributing Policy Influence under Coalition Governance” by David Fortunato, University of California, San Diego, Nick C. N. Lin, Academia Sinica, Randolph T. Stevenson, Rice University and Mathias Wessel Tromborg, Aarhus University
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program

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