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Political leaders, public opinion and electoral behaviour in Spain

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Guillem Rico (Visiting Researcher, University of California, Berkeley)

The aim of this study is to analyze the image of political party leaders and the impact this image has on the configuration of political attitudes and voting decisions made by Spaniards. The author’s research indicates that political leadership qualities do influence the behaviour of voters when electing representatives to the Congress of Deputies.

Guillem Rico (Visiting Researcher, University of California, Berkeley).

 

The aim of this study is to analyze the image of political party leaders and the impact this image has on the configuration of political attitudes and voting decisions made by Spaniards. The author’s research indicates that political leadership qualities do influence the behaviour of voters when electing representatives to the Congress of Deputies.


Leaving aside other factors, the more positively a voter views a party’s leader, the more likely he/she is to vote for that party. The correlation between leaders and votes is quite strong in empirical analyses, considering that:

 

  • The correlation holds up after accounting for other variables with proven influence on voting behaviour, such as one’s own positioning on the left-to-right ideological continuum, a feeling of affinity for certain parties, or one’s perception of the economic situation of a country.
  • It passes tests of causality based on the analysis of longitudinal data.
  • The correlation is observable in all the elections that were analyzed, covering very diverse periods, circumstances and leaders.
  • It affects all types of parties, whether large or small, moderate or not. However, in the last election, leaders’ images were more determinant regarding the vote for parties that had a real chance of winning the presidency of the government (the PSOE and PP), than for IU, whose candidates tend to have great difficulty making themselves known.
  • It exists independently of the degree of political sophistication of the voter and of the extent to which she/he depends upon the television as a source of information. Nevertheless, the extent of the impact may vary as a function of the degree of knowledge, attention, and political motivation a person has. This was evident in the general elections of 2008; analysis shows that the importance of the leaders was somewhat greater among less sophisticated voters, while still having an effect on more sophisticated ones.

 

The personalization of politics is, in short, a persistent and widespread aspect of electoral behaviour in Spain. This peculiarity does not necessarily lessen the quality of Spaniards’ voting decisions; it does not indicate, as might be thought, that the candidates’ appearance rules voters’ behaviour. Although physical appearance does play a part in the assessment of leaders, so do more substantial political criteria.

 

The assessment of leaders is based on three types of factors that are closely inter-related: perception of the leader’s personal character, opinions on important political issues, and a feeling of identification with a party. The first factor is perhaps the one that has received the most attention in the literature. Analyses indicate that the influence of character is not outside the sphere of strictly political considerations. In fact, the personal qualities that gain the attention of voters are above all those with instrumental value, whether because they infer the likelihood of the candidate’s proposals being realized, or because they predict how the candidate may act in unforeseen circumstances, or because they suggest his/her real political positions. Furthermore, the relative weight of different qualities varies as a function of the changing content of the political agenda: for instance, corruption scandals lead voters to prioritize the honesty of leaders; economic crises, on the other hand, draw attention to their competence.

 

There is no doubt that the assessment of leaders is influenced by voters’ party sympathies, as is confirmed by empirical reviews of Spanish data. Nevertheless, analysis also reveals that a bias towards a party can be affected by one’s opinion of its leader. In other words, parties and leaders work together to determine each other’s image. In the mind of the voter, the leader is the object of political accountability, while at the same time being perceived as a central agent in displaying the ideological identity of the party, through his/her political actions. Thus, the leader’s actions constitute decisive elements in the general perception of the party.

 

This reciprocal relationship explains the versatility of the phenomenon of personalization in Spanish politics. The image of each leader does not merely have a marginal impact on voting decisions. On the contrary, a leader’s image can alter even the most faithful electoral behaviour, as occurred when Pasqual Maragall relayed his position at the head of the PSC to José Montilla. Images of party leaders can even be points of reference in political debate, helping people to make up their minds on controversial political issues. For example, during the last legislature, when there was general debate about the best antiterrorist policy to follow, people’s attitude toward political leaders--particularly toward José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero--influenced their point of view on whether it was appropriate to hold talks with ETA.

 

Further information:
Rico, Guillem. Líderes políticos, opinión pública y comportamiento electoral en España (Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 2009).



Rico, Guillem. “El impacto de los líderes en las elecciones de 2008 – y más allá”. In José Ramón Montero and Ignacio Lago (eds.), Elecciones generales 2008 (Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 2010).