Democratic Discontent and Support for Mainstream and Challenger Parties: Rational Protest Voting

This paper was presented at the 2016 EPSA meeting.

During the last decade growing political discontent has been paralleled with declining support for mainstream parties and an increase in the vote share of challenger parties. However, the literature is divided about the extent to which defection from mainstream parties and support for challenger parties is related to political discontent. This paper studies the relationship between discontent and the likelihood of supporting these parties relying on an innovative operationalization of democratic discontent. Specifically, the paper develops a theoretical framework (the rational protest voting model) to analyze how different forms of democratic discontent, measured as the imbalances between democratic aspirations and evaluations that individuals perceive for specific elements of democracy, relate to the likelihood of defecting from mainstream parties and supporting left- and right-wing challenger parties. The empirical results, based on data from the European Social Survey for 15 European democracies, reveal that voters tend to support parties that are aligned with the specific nature of their democratic discontent. These results imply that the relationship between discontent and party choice should not be conceptualized as a process of protest voting decoupled from political preferences, but as a process of rational protest voting that is informed by democratic preferences or aspirations.

A graph summarizing the relationship between democratic aspirations and evaluations imbalances for different elements of democracy and the likelihood of voting for left- and right-wing challenger parties.