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This year, we will witness a series of critical general elections across Europe. From Bulgaria to the Netherlands to the French presidential election, to Germany, Norway and the Czech Republic. These countries share some major challenges. For one, party strategists are facing rising right wing movements tied to migration issues and religious diversity. And then there’s the question of a unified European Community in the wake of Brexit, a resurgent Russia, and new leadership in the U.S.
One major question to ask is how much current economic conditions across Europe will impact these votes. Is it still the economy, stupid? This was the famous phrase coined by Democratic political strategist James Carville when he was working on former President Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.
Economic voting relies on the common man’s perception that his personal and/or the country’s general economic conditions have improved (or worsened) during the incumbent’s term. In times of party dealignment, when voting behaviour is less and less (pre)determined by party identification, this type of economic issue voting (as well as candidate-centred voting) is expected to increase. For campaigners, this is a chance to address economic responsiveness and focus on the opponents’ economic shortcomings.
In the 2017 European political setting, will this hold true? Will economic campaigning, as we call it, be a successful strategy? Let us focus on the main electoral battlegrounds in 2017 (France, the Netherlands and Germany) and lay out two sides of the argument:
Perspective 1: Why it’s still the economy, stupid
Despite all the economic problems in France, national pride, xenophobia, and “France first” are the themes dividing the country in the current campaign. But France presents an interesting case, because even with nationalism as a major campaign theme, the economic situation has already exerted a major impact on the election. In the nominating process for French conservatives, the economy was a major issue. And, like we observed in the recent U.S. presidential election, an unorthodox candidacy can massively change the calculus of voters.
Adding to the uncertainty in France was the fact that incumbent president Francois Hollande opted not to run again after only one term in office. His main weakness, which arguably led to his withdrawal, was his poor economic record. From day one of his presidency, Hollande was criticized for his economic agenda.
For many European observers, the Brexit campaign in the UK and the recent presidential election in the US are viewed through this lens: America/UK first, Europe second. That’s the story for many political observers in Europe right now. But if we look more closely, it’s clear that economic concerns played a major role. Voters were driven by feelings of social decline and worry over the state of the economy, which impacted both the US and Brexit vote. Therefore: It’s still the economy, stupid.
Perspective 2: Why it may be stupid to think it’s still the economy
Let’s take a look at the Dutch and German examples. In the Netherlands, right wing candidate Geert Wilders is setting the agenda with populist issues, despite economic conditions in the country improving. The Netherlands are generally well off, and the core of the European economic crisis is taking place south of the Netherlands, mainly in Belgium, France and the Mediterranean. The Dutch perception is a mere feeling of crisis, something voters are driven by more and more in recent times.
Looking at the case of Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to be unbeatable for more than a decade. But suddenly the Social Democrats‘ nomination of then EP president Martin Schulz caused one of the largest turnarounds in polling history – even drawing comparisons to the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe propping up the German Greens.
But whereas the nuclear accident pushed the saliency of environmentally friendly energy, the Green party’s core competence, Schulz‘s nomination has altered no policy stands, whether economic ones or others. Germany’s unemployment rate and its economic well-being have not changed within these couple of weeks. Public support is merely the result of a change in heads of a main party. More social justice – that is Schulz’s core sound bite. This goes beyond economic issues – the perceived distribution of wealth is what matters. Will he succeed?
For years, we have been witnessing signs of dealignment across Europe: lower voter turnout, fewer partisans, weaker party identification, less ideological parties, fewer votes for catch-all parties. But is this dealignment process an iron law of modern political times? Probably not, as we observe growing ideology in the U.S., U.K., and by rising right wing parties like the Front National and the Alternative für Deutschland as well as catch-all parties currently attracting new members in some countries like Germany.
They are moved, as it seems, by greater political visions like Europe’s future, not by basic economic questions. So that makes the case for the old campaign wisdom being obsolete: it’s not the economy, stupid; it’s politics.
Dr. Christina Rauh works as a professional research manager and freelance market researcher. Her dissertation on context-sensitive campaigning was published 2016 by Springer VS.
Prof. Dr. Ulrich von Alemann is professor of political science at the Heinrich-Heine-Universitaet Duesseldorf. His research interests are a.o. political parties, comparative politics, political corruption. He has published numerous books and articles, and serves as a political advisor.