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In search of the ‘core electorate’

by Nico Lange

How should political parties react to an individualistic society?

Voters are becoming unstable in their voting behaviour, and partyidentification is in decline. These are only two of the developments that havetheir roots in a more individualistic society. Parties are confronted with thesedevelopments and have to find a way to maintain their attraction for the electorate.This article illustrates the challenges for parties and gives recommendationsfor action to maintain political stability.

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Society is changing. There is a strong trend towards individualisation. This is

mirrored in various developments, and among the most significant of these are

changes in voting behaviour and in the electorate itself. This paper illustrates the

reasons for these changes and gives advice on possible solutions.

Core voters: A romantic dream?

It is election day. Father, mother, son and daughter are sitting at the breakfast

table in their Sunday best. Having finished reading the Sunday papers, they

leave together to attend church. Then they walk from the church to the polling station, meeting some neighbours on the way. They chat about newspaper

reports and the Saturday night entertainment on television, which each family

would have watched together. They generally vote for one of the people’s

parties. Then the parents go off to spend Sunday afternoon in trade union

meetings, engaging in parish work or in club activities. And the children play


This romantic image of an election Sunday is hardly applicable to Europe

these days. Many of the voting pensioners, families, single parents, singles,

patchwork families and immigrants would have cast their vote by post before

election day. Instead of jointly watching the Saturday night family entertainment

on TV, they will have viewed different digital cable channels or used a streaming

service to watch TV. Many would have surfed the Internet on their tablets at the

same time. If they had sought to keep up with the news at all, it would have

been from online media and TV, which do not overlap to a great extent.

Neighbours hardly know one another, and there are few common points of

reference to stimulate conversation. Voluntary work in churches, trade unions

and clubs are also increasingly characterised by temporary commitment and

project-based involvement.

The transformed electorate

There is a clear understanding of the long-term social developments which have

changed voters and therefore voter behaviour so fundamentally over recent

decades. In the political party system, this social transformation manifests itself

particularly in the loss of long-term party allegiance and its power to influence

people’s conduct. As is the case for trade unions and churches, membership is

declining, officials are ageing and few new people are joining. Since the

democratic transformation, levels of party allegiance have been low in countries

in Central and Eastern Europe. It would appear that the dynamic and frequently

fragmented party systems of the new EU member states are increasingly setting

the trend for development in the old member states.

Against this backdrop it is remarkable that traditional positions have

continued to play such a large role in the analyses and discussions of election

results and voter behaviour. No interpretational approaches are yet available to

gain a true picture of the transformed electorate and of the associated impact on

election results and the party landscape. Over a long period, societies

throughout Europe have been undergoing noticeable changes which have

undermined previously existing certainties with respect to voters, the underlying

reasons for voter behaviour, and developments in party systems and in

government compositions. Yet despite this, many commentators and analysts

are still primarily trying to identify ‘core voters’, ‘camps’ and ‘milieux’.

New parties come and go

Analysts and political planners who still work with conceptions of ideologically

motivated core voters disregard the fact that new parties are forming and

disappearing again in Europe, that recently formed parties are achieving good

election results within weeks, and that even in the rigid British multiparty system

there has been a coalition government in place for some time and an increasing

number of relevant parties. In many EU member states, people’s parties from the

centre–right and centre–left now attract support from less than half the voting

public. The European Parliament too acquired broader fringes and a narrower

centre at the last European elections. Many political analysts run the risk of

working on the basis of an outdated model of European societies, which no

longer matches the realities in many respects. This is reflected in the efforts still

made by political actors and analysts to pigeonhole on the basis of left–right

criteria new phenomena such as the Italian Five Star Movement, the Slovenian

Modern Centre Party, the German Pirate Party or the Alternative for Germany.

Within the parties too, the classic election Sunday described above, which

may have existed in the 1970s, appears to continue to be a generally accepted

ideal or at least a romantic notion. During many discussions between party

members and party officials all across Europe, the parties are still frequently

called upon to make greater efforts to return to the proven concepts of

membership parties with a clear ideological orientation.

When reviewing election results, many party representatives mistakenly

assume that voters ‘belong’ to them. Seen from that perspective, losses are then

frequently interpreted as meaning that the voters ‘belonging’ to the party have

merely ‘moved away’ and could be made to ‘return to the fold’ by the party

repositioning itself with respect to certain issues. Citizens’ freedom in deciding

where to cast their votes is left out of the equation.

In contrast with this viewpoint, the continuation of long-term trends towards

the extensive individualisation of society that is apparent within the EU clearly

suggests that other forces are at work. Permanent identification with a particular

party is either on a continuous decline or non-existent. The picture is

characterised by voter indecision, low turnouts and an ever greater willingness

on the part of voters to experiment.

Where is the core electorate?

The electorate and the party system are experiencing ever greater changes.

During national elections, most European voters cast their votes for a different

party from the one they voted for in the previous election. Many voters do not

make up their mind about which party to vote for until shortly before polling

day. There are large voter shifts, and conditions are favourable to the sudden

emergence of new parties. These movements produce great uncertainties and

risks in Europe, which are expected to play an even larger role during future

elections. Assuming that current trends will continue, it appears likely that, in the future,

achieving good election results will depend less on parties making efforts to

appeal to who they mistakenly believe are their ‘core’ voters. Instead, it will be

important to convince floating voters anew every time. This means that each

campaign will be a competition to appeal to all voters.

In individualistic societies that are devoid of ideologies to a large extent,

achievements in solving problems as part of government action will be the main

means of convincing voters. Modern voters want parties to solve their individual

problems, not to explain the world to them. Taking up positions based on

ideology in the political debate runs the risk of fragmentation under these

circumstances. Due to the demographic development if nothing else, parties will

have to make efforts to attract new voters just to stand still in terms of electoral

results. Great triumphs and disastrous failures frequently lie close together, given

volatile electorates.

The numerous new parties created in Europe over recent years—you have

only to look at the rapid rise and fall of the Pirate Party in Germany—

demonstrate above all that declining identification with parties, voter indecision

and the fading importance of ideological orientation mean that it is becoming

ever easier in Europe to found a new party and achieve good results within a

short time. Unfortunately, European elections often perform an incubator role, as

party allegiance traditionally plays an even smaller role in that context and voter

turnout is lower in what are considered second-order elections. In many

countries, a volatile electorate encourages the arrival and departure of new

political parties, many of which resist traditional classification on the left–right


This scenario produces an important realization for political planning. If the

rise of new parties is first and foremost a consequence of volatile and

increasingly non-aligned, highly heterogeneous electorates, then it is an illusion

based on past performance if conventional parties think that they can ‘win back’

voters who have abandoned them for new parties by adopting certain positions

on the left–right spectrum. Instead, long-term trends indicate that it is very likely

that new parties will continue to appear and disappear rapidly because

individualistic, non-ideological voters will be increasingly swinging between

parties and be open to experiments in voting for different parties. Against the

backdrop of a highly heterogeneous electorate, taking up uncompromising

positions with respect to certain issues will be more likely to encourage

fragmentation rather than stabilization. Under these circumstances, people’s

parties will have to take up integrative rather than confrontational political

positions. Given the conditions of an individualistic society, the frequently

quoted ‘hard line’ or entrenched ideological stances are only likely to produce

fragmentation, fundamentalism and marginalization.

Personalities and problem-solving more important than party ideology

However, despite the long-term trend towards the rapidly advancing individualization

of society, it appears to be possible for a party to appeal to and

represent society in all its diversity. This has been illustrated not least by the

election results of the CDU/CSU1 in Germany and the fact that its approval rating

has held steady at over 40 % for years (Wolfram 2015a, b). But people’s parties

will obviously have to undergo significant changes to achieve this goal. The

recipe for success does not appear to be a return to old traditions but the

beginning of something new instead. Winning 41.5 % of the vote in an election

in 2013 (Wolfram 2015a) is simply a totally different challenge from achieving a

similar result back in 1976 (Wolfram 2015b). The CDU/CSU did not win 41.5 % of

the vote in the federal elections because it returned to old recipies but because

under Angela Merkel the party did something new.

Long-term allegiances and ideological orientation are of less importance to

parties in individualistic societies than the impact of personalities and the

demonstration of concrete problem-solving capabilities. In the new and still

changing circumstances, the latter also suggests that successful action while in

government is the most promising way to strengthen the standing of people’s


It appears that, above, all the effects of personalization have the capability to

stabilize parties faced with a volatile electorate. Integrative leaders, who can

convince the party’s own membership as well as having charisma that impresses

the heterogeneous segments of wider society, can help parties to gain greater

appeal. The successful parties of the future will not leave the development of

these leaders to chance. The early identification of talented individuals, efforts to

foster their talents and their development, as well as the assignment of

responsibilities to them, are becoming important factors in the survival of the

political parties. This idea of purposeful personnel development frequently

stands in contradiction to the existing selection and decision-making processes

within the parties.

What applies to personnel also applies to political issues; in future, parties will

have to increase their efforts to find processes that enable positioning and

decision-making, taking into account not only the party’s homogenous

membership but also the increasingly heterogeneous society. Modern parties

will likely be characterized by efforts to reach out to non-members, from regular

targeted surveys to co-decision rights. The reality of political parties will also

increasingly involve open lists, preliminary elections, public candidate hearings

and open forums on specific issues.

Problem-solving capabilities can only be demonstrated when the parties are

capable of picking up on the problems that are relevant to their very diverse

voters and devising approaches to solve those problems. If the people’s parties

in particular want to avoid being left behind by social changes, they must be

capable of extending their reach into all segments of an individualistic society.

This is where they encounter a serious problem. While society is changing at an

ever faster pace, the rate of change at the organisational level of the political

parties has lagged behind. This applies similarly to churches, trade unions and

other major organisations. To date, the parties in Europe have not changed

sufficiently to reflect phenomena such as the rapid changes in working practices,

the increasing digitisation of everyday activities and changed expectations with

respect to social engagement. The injection of new blood into the membership

and the ranks of party officials is not keeping pace with social change. At the

same time, the forms of organisation and participation of political parties in

Europe, which have not changed in decades in many cases, have not allowed the

parties to tailor their offering to members with very different demands, different

time budgets, different interests in issues, and different qualifications and

competences. There is still generally one participation model for all.


The successful parties of the future will have to offer their members different

membership models. These could range from passive membership and classic

participation in the local association to purely issue-based involvement and

virtual association structures to temporary involvement in individual projects.

Purposeful mentoring for new party members, new member officers in the

parties, and trial and premium memberships will soon be a matter of course.

Established European parties would be well advised to recognise the antiparty

parties of the populists, the unpopularity of political parties and the

protest behaviour of many voters as indications that the accelerating social

change makes it necessary for them to contemplate the consequences for their

internal forms of organisation and participation. This places the par ties in a

paradoxical situation. They claim to be involved in shaping social change, but

the parties are themselves driven by social changes that they can neither steer

nor undo.

The ability of political parties in Europe, and particularly the people’s parties,

to achieve substantial success will depend to a very large extent on their

capability to keep adapting to social developments. The parties’ flexibility in

issues, organisation and participation is increasingly turning into a decisive

success factor for political stability.


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