by Jacques Thomassen
The purpose of the European Voter project is to systematically describe and explain the electoral changes that have occurred in a number of West-European countries in the second half of the twentieth century. As such it intends to fill an obvious gap in European comparative electoral research.
At first sight electoral research is one of the best-developed and best-integrated sub-disciplines in political science. A growing number of countries have an established program of academically directed election studies, based on national probability samples of the electorate. Between the end of the 1950s and the early 1970s a national program of election studies was established in the Scandinavian countries, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. Other European countries followed later.
All these national election studies had two characteristics in common.
Mainly because of these common intellectual roots the similarity of most of these studies, both in their theoretical and methodological features is striking. This similarity suggests a well-developed program of comparative research. However, such a program does hardly exist. Despite the common intellectual roots of most European election studies, really comparative research is remarkably rare. Partly this is due to the availability of data. For a long time a number of logistical problems bedevilled using existing data in international comparative electoral research. To mention only the most obvious one: for a number of studies written documentation, even the questionnaires, were not available in English.
Awareness of these problems led to the initiative to establish the International Committee for Research into Elections and Representative Democracy (ICORE). It was founded at the end of the 1980s, its founding fathers being the study directors of some of the older national election studies programs in Western Europe, in particular Norway, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. The aim of ICORE is to promote cross-national research into electoral behaviour and representative democracy. One of ICORE’s first priorities was to overcome the logistical problems making the use of existing data difficult¹. In order to solve them a European Elections Database was created, consisting of all the national election studies documented in English. As a result of these efforts the data of most of the major European election studies, documented in English, are now available at the Central Archive in Cologne². In order to facilitate the systematic study of trends in electoral behaviour and its correlates across countries, comparable measures across time within countries for all key concepts were developed.
This resulted in The European Voter Data Base. The GESIS Data Archive for the Social Sciences (formerly: Central Archive for Empirical Social Research (ZA) at the University of Cologne) is the archive for this data base (GESIS Study Number ZA3911). The data and additional information has been made available by the principal investigators and their teams. All data and documentation relevant for “The European Voter” have been integrated and stored in a data base under the ZA-Codebook Explorer by ZA staff. The national subsets and integrated subsets of the national election studies are available for interested researchers at the same level as the principal investigators. This data base laid the foundation for the book project The European Voter³. The conceptual framework and the organising principle of this book are the following:
In line with the theory of modernisation the main proposition tested in the book is that over time the explanatory power of the variables in this causal scheme gradually shifts from left to right. Due to changes both in the composition of the electorate and the relationship between social position and electoral behaviour, the once strong relationship between social structure and politics, between social position and party choice will diminish. For the same reason it will no longer be evident that people for their life time will be loyal to a particular party. Ideologies reflecting traditional cleavages will become less important as a factor determining people’s political attitudes and party choice. Voters will decide from election to election what party they will vote for, taking into account the issues of the day, the performance of the incumbent government and their confidence in individual political leaders.
However, this proposition is systematically confronted with an alternative explanation. It has been argued that modernisation theory is wrong in assuming that changes in electoral behaviour are due to an autonomous societal process, independently from the political-institutional context. Therefore, the alternative explanation tested throughout the book is that differences in the development of electoral change between countries and fluctuations within countries are entirely, or at least partly, due to differences or changes in the political-institutional context.
Mochmann, Ekkehard; Oedegaard, Ingvill C.; Mauer, Reiner, ICORE Inventory of National Election Studies: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and United Kingdom. Bergisch Gladbach: Edwin Ferger Verlag 1998.
Jacques Thomassen (ed.), The European Voter, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 (http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199273218.do)