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Are Niche Parties Fundamentally Different from Mainstream Parties? The Causes and the Electoral Consequences of Western European Parties' Policy Shifts, 1976–1998


  • Authors are listed in alphabetical order. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association and at a 2004 departmental symposium at the University of Texas at Austin. We thank Neal Beck, Melvin Hinich, Jonathan Katz, Orit Kedar, Gary King, George Krause, Jeff Lewis, Michael Lewis-Beck, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Meguid, Lorelei Moosbrugger, and three anonymous referees for helpful comments. Any remaining errors are the authors' sole responsibility.

James Adams is associate professor of political science, University of California at Davis, Davis, CA 95616 ( Michael Clark is a Ph.D. candidate in political science, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9420 ( Lawrence Ezrow is a postdoctoral fellow of political science, Free University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands ( Garrett Glasgow is assistant professor of political science, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9420 (


Do “niche” parties—such as Communist, Green, and extreme nationalist parties—adjust their policies in response to shifts in public opinion? Would such policy responsiveness enhance these parties' electoral support? We report the results of statistical analyses of the relationship between parties' policy positions, voters' policy preferences, and election outcomes in eight Western European democracies from 1976 to 1998 that suggest that the answer to both questions isno. Specifically, we find no evidence that niche parties responded to shifts in public opinion, while mainstream parties displayed consistent tendencies to respond to public opinion shifts. Furthermore, we find that in situations where niche parties moderated their policy positions they were systematically punished at the polls (a result consistent with the hypothesis that such parties represent extreme or noncentrist ideological clienteles), while mainstream parties did not pay similar electoral penalties. Our findings have important implications for political representation, for spatial models of elections, and for political parties' election strategies.