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Government versus Opposition at the Polls: How Governing Status Affects the Impact of Policy Positions


  • Kathleen Bawn is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles, 4289 Bunche Hall, Box 951472, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472 ( Zeynep Somer-Topcu is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt University, 354 Commons Center, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203 (

  • Both authors contributed equally to the article. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. We thank James Adams and seminar participants at Michigan, Stanford, and UCLA for helpful comments and Emma Watson for research assistance. All remaining errors are the authors’ sole responsibility. Data for this project can be found at


We argue that governing status affects how voters react to extreme versus moderate policy positions. Being in government forces parties to compromise and to accept ideologically unappealing choices as the best among available alternatives. Steady exposure to government parties in this role and frequent policy compromise by governing parties lead voters to discount the positions of parties when they are in government. Hence, government parties do better in elections when they offset this discounting by taking relatively extreme positions. The relative absence of this discounting dynamic for opposition parties, on the other hand, means that they perform better by taking more moderate positions, as the standard Downsian model would predict. We present evidence from national elections in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, 1971–2005, to support this claim.