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. Sometimes there are long-term changes (this seems to have happened in Canada). But in the more normal course of events, when there is little grabbing voters’ attention, they draw on party stereotypes to form views. Once established, these stereotypes tend to be reinforced; we all have our theories about the world, and pay more attention to information that confirms our views than to information that challenges our views.

In Australia, we have two main sources of data on issue ownership. Newspoll regularly asks which party would ‘best handle’ various issues, and the Australian Election Survey asks which party is closest to the respondent’s own views. These generally confirm what we would think about relative Labor and Liberal strengths.

On health, Labor was closest to the respondent’s views all six times the AES has asked. In Newspoll, Labor has been ahead of the Coalition in 46 of 49 surveys, with a maximum margin of 19% and and average of 7.3%

On education, Labor was ahead of the Coalition in five of six AES surveys – the Libs were ahead in 1996. Newspoll only started polling on education in 1999, a decade after they started asking ‘best handle’ questions, with Labor ahead all 24 times the question has been asked, with an average lead of 9.2% and a maximum lead of 22%.

On the environment, Labor was ahead of the Coalition in five of six AES surveys – 1996 again the exception – and on 36 of 49 Newspoll surveys, with an average of 3.5%. My Newspoll test isn’t ideal for this question, as both major parties do poorly. Labor being behind has more to do with their losses to the Greens than to the Liberals.

On industrial relations, Labor was ahead of the Coalition on three of four AES surveys and 51 of 52 Newspolls, with an average lead of 11%, and a maximum lead of 24%.

Newspoll has a ‘welfare and social issues’ question with no equivalent in the AES, with Labor ahead in 53 of 54 survey by an average of 12%, and a ‘family issues’ question, with Labor ahead in 26 of 30 surveys by an average of 5.6%.

Of the clear Labor leads, ‘family issues’ is the only one that contains a major surprise. The Coalition’s pro-family rhetoric and the seemingly endless billions of dollars thrown at families seem to have had little effect on this indicator.

Labor is ahead on health and education, but perhaps not as decisively as we might have thought. Though Labor are clearly ‘committed’ to these issues, they are not very successful at delivering on them. Several surveys since the mid-1990s have shown that people believe that standards of public health and education are declining. Though the Labor Premiers have worked hard to blame federal funding for this, the reality is that they are the people delivering not-good-enough services.

Industrial relations as a win for Labor suggests that ‘performance’ can only go so far against the stereotypes. Though the Coalition had its best Newspoll results in the few years before WorkChoices, it never drew ahead of Labor, despite record low strikes and strong real wages growth.

The Coalition does not have as much issue strength as Labor, but its best result is taxation. It won all five AES surveys in which a tax question was asked, and 43 of 48 Newspolls with an average margin of 7.7%. The introduction of the unpopular GST caused a small but temporary deficit in 2001, with Coalition stereotypes generally shielding it from voter anxiety.

On immigration, the Coalition was ahead in three of four AES surveys, and 40 of 47 Newspoll surveys, with an average lead of 8%. Though it had some good numbers after a high-salience issue like Tampa, the Coalition had also won most surveys before that incident. And it fell 8 points behind in June 2005, in the aftermath of the Solon and Rau bungles.

On defence, the AES only asked about it in 2001 and 2004, with very large Coalition leads both times. Newspoll also only starts in 2001, with 14 out of 14 Coalition wins since with an average lead of 23.5%. This looks very strong for the Coalition, but we would want to see polling under Labor before calling it as a Liberal issue.

Apart from defence, the issues of greatest strength for the Coalition in Newspoll are the economy and interest rates, with 20%+ leads despite the Rudd effect. There is no economy question in the AES, but the Coalition has won 4 of 5 interest rate questions. These, however, may be issues on which the Coalition only has a ‘lease’ rather than owning them. Unfortunately, Newspoll has only asked about the economy from mid-1989 to early 1990, and then again from February 2005. But those early polls before the recession we had to have were small wins for Labor, then in power.

Newspoll has far more regular questions on interest rates, and with this issue we have the advantage of a well-publicised and generally agreed on indicator, home mortgage rates. In broad terms, we can see RBA interest rate adjustments flowing through to the Newspoll ‘best handle’ results. Eight successive interest rate cuts between 1990 and 1992 saw the Coalition’s 13% lead over Labor shrink to being 3% behind, though the Coalition did bounce back, especially after an interest rate increase in 1994. A series of interest rate cuts from 1996 to 1999 set the Coalition up for a period of very big leads. Its June 2007 result, however, was showing the signs of recent interest rate increases, with an 11% drop since June 2006. Interest rates are still trending upwards, which may extend the Coalition’s lease on this issue if Labor is blamed, but there is no long-term guarantee that this will be retained if interest rates drop further into Labor’s term.

The most difficult issue to classify is unemployment. The Coalition has won four of six in the AES, but only 19 of 48 in Newspoll. Averaged out, the two parties are a tie as best party to handle. There is clearly a strong performance element to respondent replies on unemployment, but I am going to call this as a very weak Labor issue. My reason for saying this is that Labor held onto a lead from June 1997 to February 2002, despite unemployment dropping consistently throughout this period. Even with unemployment at its lowest levels in a generation, the Coalition holds only modest leads in the last few years.

My hypothesis is that though in the period since Newspoll started asking this question the Coalition’s record on the number of unemployed is far better than Labor’s, this question prompts concerns about job security and welfare on which the Coalition is weaker than the ALP.

Generally, I think the Australian survey data accords with the American theory on issue ownership and ‘lease’, though perhaps the metaphors are a little inaccurate. It is hard to say that a party ‘owns’ an issue when sometimes they are outpolled on it. This is not a problem with the theory however, which predicts that high salience events can dislodge a party from its usual position, because they (seem to) take away the lack of knowledge that prompts people to draw on party stereotypes.

We can see that in Australia. The Coalition took hits across all issues during the second half of 1994 during Alexander Downer’s disastrous period as Liberal leader, losing tax, immigration and interest rates on which it had been doing well, and prompting unusually large Labor margins on the issues it normally leads.

Labor had a similar experience in late 1991, as the recession and the Keating leadership challenge caused an across-the-issues loss of confidence in Labor’s competence.

Rather than parties owning issues outright, it would be more precise to say that polling provides evidence that parties own default support on various issues. While high-salience information, such as leadership crises or specific issue problems like immigration scandals, can cause the parties to reverse their normal position as the best able to handle, this is temporary. The polls revert to their normal pattern in the absence of powerful challenges to stereotypical views.

6 thoughts on “What does it mean for a political party to ‘own’ an issue?

  1. Hey Andrew,

    I reckon the question of ‘issue ownership’ is more an admission that neither side has had all the answers, and those it DOES have are by definition therefore half-cocked.

    There is only one reality, one society, one species.

    When solutions diverge or cannot be universally applied, then the there is a problem with the theory underlying that solution.

    BTW I just got accepted into the Canberra libs, might see you round the traps 😉

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  2. “What does it mean for a political party to ‘own’ an issue?”

    … it means repeating a lie long enough until everyone believes it.

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  3. Maybe it would be useful to combine the research on issue ownership with the research on framing.

    For example, what kind of issue is ‘unemployment’?

    It could be an economic issue. Nobody wants to lose their job or have their family, friends or customers lose their jobs. They want the government to manage the economy so unemployment stays low.

    But it could also be a social issue. ‘The unemployed’ might be a synonym for ‘dole bludgers’. Nobody wants the government to go soft on dole bludgers. It’s wrong for people to get something for nothing — and besides, they’re sucking our taxes.

    So it matters how you frame the issue of unemployment. It seems to me that right of centre parties have an easier time when unemployment is a social issue. A lot of voters still believe that government intervention in the economy can protect jobs.

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  4. Don – I think some respondents framing unemployment as a social issue helps explain why Labor does better on it that we would expect given the trends in joblessness, but wouldn’t the dole bludger argument add to the Coalition’s position when joblessness is heading down? The easier jobs are to find, the less acceptable being on the dole becomes?

    Another aspect of the numbers I am struggling to explain is that though there has been a significant long-term trend towards people favouring higher taxation, the ‘low-tax’ party (in stereotypical terms) has maintained its position as the party best able to handle the issue.

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