• Open Access

How parties compete for votes: A test of saliency theory



Saliency theory is among the most influential accounts of party competition, not least in providing the theoretical framework for the Comparative Manifesto Project – one of the most widely used data collections in comparative politics. Despite its prominence, not all empirical implications of the saliency theory of party competition have yet been systematically tested. This article addresses five predictions of saliency theory, the central claim of which is that parties compete by selective issue emphasis rather than by direct confrontation. Since a fair test of the theory's assumptions needs to rely on data that measures party issue saliency and party positions independently, this article draws on new manifesto data from the Austrian National Election Study (AUTNES). Analysing all manifestos issued for the 2002, 2006 and 2008 general elections, it shows that saliency theory correctly identifies some features of party competition. For instance, parties disproportionally emphasise issues they ‘own’. Yet, the core assumption of saliency theory that parties compete via selective issue emphasis rather than direct confrontation over the same issues fails to materialise in the majority of cases.