In voter, this is not true of

In this essay, I will argue that
whilst mainstream political parties have an incentive to cater to the median
voter, this is not true of more politically niche parties. This is due to the
fact that parties who traditionally form the majority of the legislature are
often more concerned with office seeking than policy seeking. Whereas, the
parties which exist to represent the more politically radical preferences of a
countries electorate are inclined to appear more as loyal policy seekers as
this is integral in terms of their ability to retain and grow their existing
support. Firstly, I will examine the incentive of more moderate parties to
converge to the position of the median voter in order to maximise their
respective vote shares. Then, I will invoke the rise in popularity of populism
and other niche political movements to suggest that for these parties their
anti-establishment ethos requires they remain loyal to their original support
base and more extreme political ideologies. I conclude that not only does the
median voter model fail to explain the behaviour of niche political parties,
but it also is not supported empirically by the actions of some mainstream
parties and their candidates.


It is recognised by many that the
Downsian median voter model can be readily applied to mainstream parties in
most modern democracies. This is unsurprising as for parties with relatively
centrist positions in the political space their ability to win the support of
the median voter, and those on ‘their’ side of the political spectrum, decides
whether they win a majority in the legislature. Parties who attempt to cater to
the median voter are vote maximisers, although, this may be an implicit
strategy to gain legislative seats and thus enact policy, on the surface it
appears to suggest that these parties are primarily office-seeking. According
to Michels’ iron law of oligarchy, the leadership of political parties will
never be faithful to the program and constituencies who gave rise to the
organisation. Whilst this is a cynical vision of the intentions of larger parties,
it can be said that a recent rise in voter apathy in Western and European
democracies suggests that once loyal, partisan voters have lost faith in their
respective parties to promote their founding values. This is evident in the UK,
where the rise of New Labour, a politically moderate vision of leftist values,
coincided with a significant decline in voter turnout going from 77.7% under
John Major in 1992, his first general election as Prime Minister, to 59.4% in
preceding Tony Blair’s second consecutive term. This would suggest that the
electorate, regardless of the policy decisions of the incumbent government, are
not convinced that mainstream parties are moderating their manifestos in order
to “gain more leverage to pull the governing coalition’s policy in its
preferred direction.”2
Instead, the consensus appears to be that “mainstream parties are steadily
pitching larger ideological tents in an attempt to ‘catch’ more voters, and
this requires that these parties shed their ‘ideological baggage'”3
and as a consequence they have become “unresponsive to the policy shifts of
their supporters.”4
Equally, “Adams and Merrill’s (2009) theoretical study on policy-seeking parties’
strategies in multiparty systems concludes that parties are motivated to adjust
their policy strategies in response to their beliefs about the median voter’s
position, rather than… to the diversity of voter ideologies in the electorate,”5
thus, furthering the idea that parties are less interested in representing
existing unrepresented cleavages of the electorate and are instead more
inclined to moderate their policy preferences so that they can capture this
theoretically homogenous group whose preferences lie in the centre of the
political space.

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Arguably, the strategy of catering
to the median voter carries a greater incentive due to existence of a
Post-Materialist cleavage in many Western democracies. Lipset and Orkkan argue
that the following the introduction of universal suffrage in the 1920s, the
European party system became frozen as the predominance of the economic
cleavage and partisan identities were established. But, following what
Inglehart calls a Post-Materialist value shift, the salience of the economic
cleavage began to decline, and the electorate developed more homogenous views
concerning social issues such as multiculturalism, gender and race equality and
reproductive choice. Hence, the divisive gap between the, previously economic, policy
preferences of the centre right and centre left began to be reduced due to the
electorates desire for a more socially moderate political narrative. Leading
mainstream parties to believe the most efficient path into office was to
attempt to dominate “the crowded centre.”6
However, the decision by the larger mainstream parties in European politics to
respond to this post-materialist shift and converge upon the median voter has
undoubtedly allowed new and smaller parties to ‘outflank’ them. This is
particularly true of multiparty proportional systems where it has been easier
for these more extreme parties to gain legislative representation. Yet, it is
also true of majoritarian systems where the far-right and left have gained a
significant increase in vote share and consequently made the rewards of
securing the median voter less appealing for the larger parties who, through
gaining electoral support in the centre, have lost members of their base support.

Even if we are inclined to perceive
that mainstream parties and their candidates have an incentive to cater to the
median voter due to their desire to gain office, this does not mean that this
is always the most efficient method for doing so. The Downsian model does not
hold true in many low-income countries where we would expect the income of the
median voter to be less than the average income of all voters and consequently
expect the policy preferences of mainstream parties to be towards more
extensive social services. In reality, Keefer and Khemani have found that
politicians in poorer countries prefer to promise narrower targetable goods
rather than broad public services. This is in part due to the fact that
choosing to cater to the median voter would be to ignore much more salient
political cleavages which influence voter’s choices in these countries. Citizens
in poorer and often socially divided countries tend to have more heterogenous
preferences such as candidates from a certain ethnic group. Therefore,
politicians in polarised societies rarely internalise society wide costs and
benefits of their policy decisions and hence, do not have a strong incentive to
cater to the median voter.


Niche and often more radical
political parties who occupy their own distinct ideological space have little
to gain from moderating their policies to cater to the median voter and much to
gain from the convergence of mainstream parties in ‘the crowded centre.’ The
homogeneity of mainstream electoral candidates undoubtedly led to an increase
in voter apathy in the early 2000s. This lack of political choice facilitated
the success of new and smaller electoral parties who were able to attract the
more extreme base supporters of the mainstream parties. The studies of
Kitschelt and D’Alimonte suggest that niche party elites will be more
responsive to their supporters than to the mean voter because niche party
elites who are willing to temper their policy orientations towards the median
voter position run the risk of being perceived as pandering or ‘selling out’.7
This notion that niche parties are required to be ‘fundamentally different’ is
consistent with the research of Adams et al.8
, who report a statistical tendency for niche parties to lose votes when they
moderate their policy positions. Moreover, even if due to the mechanical effect
of an electoral system, it is difficult for niche parties who occupy a distinct
ideological space to gain legislative representation the fact that “niche
parties are concerned primarily with preserving their electoral support in the
long term” dictates that it is still prudent for smaller parties to remain
steadfast in their policy goals as this allows them to distinguish themselves
from the monotonous parties in the centre. Niche parties are unable to conform
to the Downsian model as unlike “more hierarchical mainstream party
organisations,”9 “the
structure of niche party organizations enhances communication between the
elites of these parties and their members,”10and
consequently ensures the party elite remain loyal to the policy preferences of
their members as opposed to wider public opinion.

We can see evidence which is
contrary to the claim that ‘all parties have an incentive to cater to the
median voter’ if we examine the consequences of the convergence of mainstream
parties upon the median voter. Arguably, the development of a largely congruous
list of political choices in the political mainstream has exacerbated voter
apathy and facilitated the revival of populism. Although the post-materialist
trend would be expected to deter the majority of the electorate from more
extreme political ideologies, the self-identification of populist parties as
being anti-establishment and representing the mass of “the people” allows
populists to attract voters from a wider range of the political spectrum than
other niche parties. This is evident in the recent success of far-right
populism in Europe and the US. Regardless of the fact that in countries such as
the UK, the single-member-district-plurality system prohibits smaller,
ideologically dispersed parties from gaining significant legislative seats to
directly influence policy, the popularity of parties such as UKIP and their
ideational appeal, has forced mainstream parties to discuss topics such as
immigration and its supposed threat to national identity and culture and as
such the far-right have successfully shifted the political narrative towards
concerns they alone claim to be able to address.

This essay has sought to illustrate
the salience of the median voter hypothesis in relation to the behaviour of
mainstream parties in the post-materialist era. However, the argument I have
proposed also suggests that for niche, smaller parties who tend to occupy their
own distinct ideological space, the incentive to cater to the median voter is
negligible in comparison with the incentive to remain allegiant to the policy
preferences of their base support. This is most apparent when we consider that the
anti-establishment ethos and loyalty to core principles is what differentiates populist
parties from the mainstream and has lead to their success. Thus, whilst mainstream
parties who wish to capture the largest amount of the electorate under an ‘ideological
umbrella’ undoubtedly have an incentive to cater the median voter, in more divided
or apathetic societies, both niche parties and mainstream parties should be more
inclined to respond to the policy preferences of their base support in order to
account for a more heterogenous electorate.

1 House of Commons Research Papers 01/37, 01/54, 05/33 &

2 Ezrow et al. Mean Voter Representation and Partisan Constituency Representation, (Sage
Journals), 2011.

Ezrow et al. Mean Voter Representation
and Partisan Constituency Representation, (Sage Journals), 2011.

Ezrow et al. Mean Voter Representation
and Partisan Constituency Representation, (Sage Journals), 2011.

5 Ezrow
et al. Mean Voter Representation and
Partisan Constituency Representation, (Sage Journals), 2011.

6 Ezrow
et al. Mean Voter Representation and
Partisan Constituency Representation, (Sage Journals), 2011.

7 Ezrow
et al. Mean Voter Representation and
Partisan Constituency Representation, (Sage Journals), 2011.

Adams, James, Michael Clark, Lawrence Ezrow and Garrett Glasgow (2006) ‘Are
Niche Parties Fundamentally Different from Mainstream Parties?: The Causes and
Electoral Consequences of Western European Parties’ Policy Shifts, 1976–1998′,
American Journal of Political Science 50: 513–29

9 Ezrow
et al. Mean Voter Representation and
Partisan Constituency Representation, (Sage Journals), 2011.

10 Ezrow
et al. Mean Voter Representation and
Partisan Constituency Representation, (Sage Journals), 2011.