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Do Political Parties Influence Participation?

IPR political scientist Georgia Kernell shows how candidate selection affects party support


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IPR political scientist Georgia Kernell finds the structure of political parties influences political participation.

Current research on political engagement tends to focus on citizens—their age, gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. But in an IPR working paper that is forthcoming in Comparative Political Studies (CPS), IPR political scientist Georgia Kernell turns her attention to political institutions themselves. 

Kernell
Georgia Kernell

“I'm interested in the role that parties and party organizations play in behavior,” Kernell said. “While we have a good understanding of individual-level determinants, we do not know as much about environmental factors—especially those of informal institutions like parties.”

In “Party Nomination Rules and Campaign Participation,” Kernell examines if differences in how candidates are nominated could influence how supporters campaign for their party.

Political parties choose candidates in different ways: In some, like Australia’s Labor Party, party members select candidates. In others, such as the British Labour Party, only those at the top rung of the party ladder choose candidates. Other parties fall somewhere in between; for example, party elites might veto a nomination from party members.

Kernell tests two opposing hypotheses in her working paper to evaluate how party structures influence voters. First, she argues that members participating in the nominating process might encourage campaign involvement. Alternatively, Kernell posits that allowing party members to nominate candidates, rather than those in the top ranks, could “expose internal party divisions” and “depress party participation.”

While other studies have examined the role of political institutions in shaping how individuals behave, Kernell was the first to examine on a cross-national level how party organizations influence voter behavior. To test her hypotheses, she used information about candidate selection mechanisms, along with election information from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES).

Her analysis shows that party supporters are more likely to campaign for their parties or engage in political persuasion when top party members select the candidates. In fact, candidate nomination methods influence campaign engagement as much as gender, age, and college education—three socioeconomic factors noted for their impact on political participation.

Kernell said the results surprised her. “Initially I thought people would be more likely to participate if they have more authority over candidate selection,” she said. “It turns out people are less likely to campaign when regular party members, rather than party leaders, select candidates.”

Her research also reveals that a party’s size, ideology, heterogeneity, and incumbency influence participation levels. Supporters of left-leaning parties, for instance, are more likely to campaign than those in right-leaning ones. Those partial to less popular parties are also more likely to actively rally for candidates, as well as those with recent experience in government.

Georgia Kernell is an assistant professor of political science. For more information, read her IPR working paper and forthcoming Comparative Political Studies article, “Party Nomination Rules and Campaign Participation.  Interviews were conducted by email.

Photo by Melanie Kruvelis.