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Current state of knowledge

In the field of European electoral research experienced a significant change in methods, conceptual perspectives and substantive theories over the last years. The ‘partisan dealignment’ theory until recently has been the prevailing research paradigm. Its basic claim was that all over Europe voters’ political orientations became increasingly more independent of their social identities, certainly compared to the seminal account of cleavage structures and voter alignments by Lipset and Rokkan (1967). According to this, voters increasingly began to choose, whereas in the past their votes were mainly driven by their group identities defined by structural cleavages. The conceptual perspective was mainly sociological, a bottom up way of looking at how voters are making up their mind when they vote. Social change -mainly cognitive mobilization and cultural change -was seen as the main factor in electoral change.
This conceptual perspective did not allow for time and context specific variation, and it was partial because political-institutional factors were not taken into account. The latter, however, are precisely the main tenets of a set of theories that may be labelled the ‘politics matters’ theory. Over the years, the supply side factors have achieved a new status in electoral studies. In a recent volume edited by Thomassen (2005), the predictions of the sociological paradigm of electoral change are tested against theories focusing on the effects of the political context on electoral behavior. Looking at the individual relationship between voters’ social background and their party choice, the studies edited by Thomassen find that the electoral change of the last decades did not show the linear trend that the sociological theory of partisanship predicted. On the contrary, a lot of country-specific variation is identified which clearly results from differences in the political context of individual behavior, both characterized in terms of institutions and the political supply (the choice options supplied to the voters by the parties). The concluding strong message of the Thomassen book is that politics matters more than social position in defining the political choices of citizens.
The European Voter, following the lead of earlier American work (e.g. Cox 1997) suggests that voting behavior is better explained by a top down conceptual perspective than by a bottom up one. However, the European Voter project has severe limits. First, its scope is confined to six Northern European countries: Southern and Eastern European countries are not included. Second, political context variables are mainly conceived as interaction terms of social background or political predisposition variables. Their direct effects on voting behaviour is not considered, leaving crucial theories of electoral behavior (like theories of strategic voting) un-tested.
The Action entitled ‘The True European Voter’ goes beyond the state of the art as it is defined by the European Voter. There are three major dimensions of innovation: scope, methods, and concepts. The first is perhaps the most basic and has to do with the larger number and greater variety of COST countries that will be included in testing models of electoral change. The second consists of an advanced level of methodological sophistication that is made possible by this larger number of electoral contexts under study; more in particular, fully specified multi-level statistical analyses of electoral behavior will become feasible which allow to predict the vote by individual variables, context variables and interactions of the two. Third, the conceptual reach of this COST Action will go well beyond the state of the art by including variables measuring the degree of consolidation of electoral systems, the stability of voter alignments, the structure of party organisation and properties of the system of political intermediation.