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Dominant Party Strategies — Downsian Defense v. Rikerian Offense

- February 20, 2008

Say that you’re the leader of a dominant political party somewhere in the world, and your party is being threatened by some new opposition parties. How should you respond to this threat to your party’s hegemony? You could, of course, try to hold onto power by suppressing the new parties. But let’s assume that you’re committed to operating within the context of a democratic system. What to do?

Kenneth Greene poses this question in a paper published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Political Science (abstract here). His intriguing answer draws on theories associated with Anthony Downs (essentially, partisan convergence toward the midpoint on the ideological continuum as the winning strategy) and William Riker (essentially, partisan concentration on the forging of a minimal winning coalition). Greene’s argument plays out as follows:

bq. Threatened by the entry of new parties, a dominant party … must strategize with its position on the traditional partisan cleavage in one of two ways. First, it can play Downsian Defense by sticking close to the center in the attempt to consolidate a slimmed-down version of its previously broad electoral coalition. Defending the center involves some risk since it does nothing to inhibit opposition voters from coordinating behind a single challenger …; however, …playing Downsian Defense can be the best option under some conditions.

bq. Alternatively,it can play Rikerian Offense by moving away from the position of the stronger challenger in the attempt to undercut opposition coordination …

bq. The decision [between the two strategies] depends on the reasons for the opposition party strength and the challengers’ mobility in the competition space. …Ideological opposition voters’ preferences are such that they will not coordinate strategically on a single opposition party … [so] there is virtually no strategic voting and the incumbent should play Downsian Defense. If opposition parties instead grow around appeals for democracy on the cross-cutting cleavage, then the incumbent has incentives to undercut strategic voting by playing Rikerian Offense. Whether it should depends on the opposition’s strategic mobility on the traditional cleavage [because if the stronger of the two opposition parties is “mobile,” it can move toward the dominant party and thereby pick up the voters that it leaves behind iby repositioning itself toward the weaker opposition party].

Pretty neat. But does it work? In a sophisticated analysis of voting at the state level during the period when the PRI dominated Mexican politics, Greene concludes that things played out pretty much as he had expected — leading to the insight that under certain conditions, it makes sense for a party to “flee the middle” instead of seeking it out.