What does it mean for a political party to ‘own’ an issue?

I’m writing the public opinon chapter for a forthcoming book on the Liberal Party’s future, and in the process trying to think more systematically about the concept of ‘issue ownership’ – discussed here before in the context of Mummy party/Daddy party thesis. Rather surprisingly (or perhaps not, for those who always thought it was dubious), I can’t find anything about it in the Australian academic literature, though there is a fair amount in the international political science journals.

In the US, issue ownership analysis is part of broader theories about voter ignorance. We know from many surveys that the general public has very limited knowledge of political institutions and policies. They tend not to know very much about broader social trends either. This means that electors draw on various informational short-cuts to make political decisions. This includes stereotypical views of political parties, based on assumed previous policy success or failure, or on perceptions of how political party members feel about an issue, on the assumption that interest or sincerity will translate into successful policy.

According to the American literature, some issues are not owned by any party but are ‘performance’ issues. The economy is put into this category, as whether or not it is going well is sufficiently obvious to voters, from regular news reports and everyday experience, for them to form their own views directly on the issue without going via a prior party stereotype (in one paper, parties can have a ‘lease’ on the economy as an issue, but one which would end with their recession or another party’s boom).

Even where issues are ‘owned’, the standing of parties is not immune to very salient contrary information, such as debacles and scandals. Continue reading “What does it mean for a political party to ‘own’ an issue?”