Based on a survey experiment, Ekaterina Kolpinskaya, Gabriel Katz, Susan Banducci, Daniel Stevens, and Travis Coan find that victories depicted as narrow in the media increased scepticism about the incoming government’s ability to deliver on its promises. The opposite was observed when the victory was presented as decisive – especially among the less politically knowledgeable.
Although it may be heart-warming to win by a landslide, under the First-Past-the-Post system, a handful of votes can decide the fate of a parliamentary seat: ‘getting over the line’ in the majority of seats is all it takes for a party to form a government. Yet governing – and winning subsequent elections – is another matter entirely.
Previous research has shown that the magnitude of victory for a government determines the public’s expectations and confidence in that government’s ability to enact their manifesto promises. Put simply, if the governing party wins big, then voters can be more confident the government can deliver, whereas if they have a tiny majority (or, like the current Conservative government, no majority) voters are more sceptical about that ability.
Less is known, however, about how the public develop their assessment of the magnitude of a new government’s victory. Our research set out to look at what role the media played in shaping this assessment: we used experiments to look at how different ways of framing the Conservatives’ victory in the 2015 election affected voters’ views of the magnitude of that victory. We found that the way the media frames an election victory is very important in this respect, and it is even more important in close elections (such as that in 2015), as well as for less politically knowledgeable voters who are more susceptible to media framing.
The 2015 General Election offered an excellent opportunity to explore how media framing of electoral victories influences citizens’ confidence that the new government will enact their policy programme. That is, considering the widespread expectation of a hung Parliament and a coalition government that opened doors to multiple post-election interpretations of how decisive the Conservative victory was. Indeed, the descriptions of the Tory majority varied from ‘slender’ and ‘slim’ to being a ‘crushing victory’ for David Cameron, conveying a ‘strong endorsement from the electorate’. Different interpretations of the electoral outcome led to different readings of the policy implications. At the same time that The Telegraph readers learned that the Prime Minister’s party would ‘have a free hand’ to craft policy, The Economist reported that Cameron would find little support to push a divisive government programme.
Using these conflicting interpretations of the size of a Conservative mandate, we examined how alternative media interpretations about the decisiveness of the electoral victory affected people’s beliefs about the incoming government’s policy performance. In a survey experiment conducted three weeks after the election, we presented participants with news articles portraying the Tory victory as either ‘decisive’ or ‘narrow’ using two real-life news stories from The Telegraph and The Guardian, and two further articles communicating the same messages but without attribution to a news source. We then estimated the effects of exposure to these competing descriptions – while accounting for individuals’ political, attitudinal and socio-demographic characteristics such as vote choice, trust in media, interest in politics, age, education, etc. – on expectations about the government’s ability to honour its policy commitments.
Overall, when the incoming government’s victory was portrayed as ‘decisive’, subjects were more likely to believe that they would be able to deliver on their campaign promises. This is particularly true for less politically knowledgeable participants who were significantly more prone to believe that the Conservatives would honour their commitments when exposed to ‘decisive’ victory frames. The magnitudes of these differences were quite sizable – with those who got a ‘decisive’ victory news story (even without a source) and did not regularly follow the news having been three times more likely to believe that the Conservatives would implement their policy programme than more knowledgeable participants who received the same message.
Partisanship too affected expectations about government policy behaviour by pre-disposing Conservative identifiers and non-partisans to believe that the government would deliver on its campaign promises, but only when the news story was attributed to The Telegraph. Unsurprisingly, Labour identifiers who read the article from The Guardian were 3.4 percentage points less likely to believe that the Tories would be able to deliver on their promises than those in the control group. Finally, trust in media/news source plays some role too. On average, those who do not trust newspapers in general were 7 to 15 percentage points less likely to believe that the Conservatives would deliver on their campaign promises compared to those with higher trust levels. However, this did not affect people’s receptivity to information about the decisiveness of the Tory victory.
In general, we show that decisive victories enhance expectations of government performance, and the (perceived) decisiveness of the electoral victory influences voters’ expectations about government policymaking. The effects from media framing of electoral outcomes shape expectations of those with low levels of political knowledge in particular, though a lack of trust in media and partisan motivated reasoning play a role too.
These are important findings when we consider the need for voters to be able to hold government to account in subsequent elections in a democracy: voters who believe that governments could and should have implemented their full manifesto (because they felt the margin of the government’s victory made that possible) are more likely to be critical of that party in the next election if it fails to do so, whereas those who felt that the government was less likely to be able to keep all its promises (because its majority in the House of Commons was small, or non-existent) might be more forgiving. The way the media presents and frames an election result is vital for shaping voters’ expectations of the government delivering on its promises – meaning it may play an important role in determining those voters’ decisions in future elections.
Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.
Ekaterina Kolpinskaya is Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Swansea University.
Gabriel Katz is Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Exeter.
Susan Banducci is Professor of Politics at the University of Exeter.
Daniel Stevens is Professor of Politics at the University of Exeter.
Travis Coan is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).