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Principle vs. Pragmatism: Policy Shifts and Political Competition


  • I would like to thank Taavi Annus, Christine Cheng, Jonathan Krieckhaus, Patrik Marier, and Barbara Trish for valuable comments on various drafts of this article. An earlier version of the article was presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, April 20–23, 2006.

Margit Tavits is assistant professor of political science, University of Missouri-Columbia, 113 Professional Building, Columbia, MO 65211 ( and Post-Doctoral Prize Research Fellow, Nuffield College, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom OX1 1NF.


This article investigates the electoral effect of party policy shifts. I argue that whether party policy shifts are damaging or rewarding depends on whether the shift occurs in the pragmatic or principled issue domain. On pragmatic issues, voters value “getting things done.” Policy shifts in this domain signal responsiveness to the changing environment and are likely to be rewarded. Principled issues, however, concern core beliefs and values. Any policy shift in this domain is a sign of inconsistency and lack of credibility, which is likely to lead to voter withdrawal. These arguments are supported by evidence from 23 advanced democracies over a period of 40 years.