Bjorn BurscherWhat explains the electoral performance of anti-immigrant parties across different countries? In this article, Bjorn Burscher examines the relationship between news about immigration and crime and anti-immigrant voting in 11 countries. He finds that exposure to these news topics is positively associated with the likelihood to vote for an anti-immigrant party.

Anti-immigrant parties exist in many established democracies. Their electoral strength varies over time and across countries. For example, the National Front (FN) in France flourished in the early 1990s but was struggling in the late 1990s. In neighboring Belgium a party with exactly the same name existed back then, which was always considerably less successful than the French FN. What explains such variation in anti-immigrant parties’ electoral performance?

Existing theories on the electoral performance of anti-immigrant parties include explanations focusing on characteristics of their voters, of the parties themselves, of competing parties, and of the countries in which they operate. These explanations to some extent fail to explain the considerable differences in anti-immigrant parties success within countries over time, and across countries.

In the academic literature, very few studies of anti-immigrant voting take the news media into account. This is perhaps surprising, as the mass media are a main source of political information for citizens. Not all news media content is theoretically expected to matter for anti-immigrant party voting. The literature on the topic suggests that anti-immigrant party support is affected by the prominence of nationalism, immigration, crime, and ‘anti-politics’ in the news media, the visibility of immigration issues in national newspapers, and their prominence in the news more generally.

To improve our understanding of how news media can affect on anti-immigrant voting, we have investigated the relationship between exposure to news about immigration and crime and the likelihood to vote for an anti-immigrant party. We have tested this relationship for 13 anti-immigrant parties in 11 countries: the British National Party (BNP, Britain), National Front (FN, France), Northern League (LN, Italy), the Republicans (REP, Germany), National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD, Germany), Sweden Democrats (SD, Sweden), Danish People’s Party (DF, Denmark), Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ, Austria), Flemish Interest (VB, Belgium), National Front (FN, Belgium), Freedom Party (PVV, Netherlands), True Finns (PS, Finland), and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS, Greece).

In our study, we focus on two well-established theories – agenda setting theory and issue ownership theory. Based on a combination of both theories, we expect voters exposure to media coverage of immigration and crime issues to increase their probability to vote for an anti-immigrant party. Taken together, the two theories explain how issue-related news can influence anti-immigrant party voting. Firstly, in accordance with the agenda-setting hypothesis, exposure to issue-related news stories is expected to increase the salience of the topic among voters. Secondly, we need to explain how such increased salience translates into a vote choice for anti-immigrant parties. Therefore, we refer to issue ownership theory, which explains that the exposed voter becomes more likely to vote for a party, which is associated with the issue and/or has a reputation of handling the issue. By combining both theories, our research demonstrates that issue visibility plays an important role in explaining how media coverage affects individual-level party preferences.

To study this relationship we use two-wave panel survey data from the 2009 European Election Campaign Study. Representative samples of the electorates of 11 Western European countries were interviewed about one month prior to the June 4-7 2009 elections for the European Parliament, and once again immediately after the elections. Our dependent variable is the (individual-level) likelihood to vote for each of the anti-immigrant parties. To measure this likelihood, vote intentions for each anti-immigrant party are assessed in the surveys.

The key independent variables are individual exposure to immigration- and crime-related news between the voter panel waves. In order to compute these values, we combine data from a media content analysis with survey measures of (self-reported) media exposure. The content analysis is carried out on a sample of national news media coverage in the 11 countries mentioned above. In each country the main national evening news broadcasts of the most widely-watched public and commercial television stations are included. Furthermore, two ‘quality’ (i.e. broadsheet) and one tabloid newspaper from each country are analysed. In total, 20,084 news stories have been coded for their primary topic (e.g., immigration, crime, etc.).

In order to assess our hypotheses, we estimate per party a regression model with the second-wave measure of the vote intention for a specific anti-immigrant party (0=no; 1=yes) as the dependent variable, and exposure to immigration-related news as the key independent variable. Also, the first-wave measure of the national vote intention for the specific anti-immigrant party and a set of control variables are added to each model as independent variables. These are variables which are theoretically related to voting for anti-immigrant parties.

Results of our analyses suggest that exposure to news about immigration as well as exposure to news about crime is positively associated with the likelihood to vote for an anti-immigrant party. The relation between immigration news and anti-immigrant voting is found for 12 of the 13 parties under study.The relation between crime news and anti-immigrant voting is found for 11 of 13 parties. In all 26 cases the relation is positive, as expected. We, therefore, conclude that exposure to news about immigration as well as exposure to news about crime are positively related to the likelihood to vote for an anti-immigrant party.

With these findings, we strengthen the theoretical foundation of anti-immigrant voting. We demonstrate that when it comes to anti-immigrant parties this foundation concerns the visibility of immigration and crime issues in the news. We go beyond the existing academic literature by studying the relation between exposure to immigration as well as crime news and voting on the individual level, and by showing that the relation holds for nearly the entire population of relevant anti-immigrant parties in contemporary Western Europe.

This article summarises “Owning the issues of crime and immigration: The relation between immigration and crime news and anti-immigrant voting in 11 countries” in Electoral Studies.

About the Author

Bjorn BurscherBjorn Burscher is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Science at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam. His research interests include political communication, the effects of news, and computational social science. At the moment, he works on the INFINITI project, which develops and enables the exploitation of open source and open standards tools to support semantic search. Bjorn can be reached at


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