Mark N. Franklin, Programme of Research 2006-2011



Over the past five years my research has focused on understanding election outcomes. This has been a new departure in the empirical study of electoral behaviour, because scholars studying this topic (myself and others) had previously focused on trying to understand influences on individual voting behaviour: why people vote or not, and (if they vote) why they vote the way they do.

It might be thought that an understanding of why people vote, and why they vote the way they do, would naturally yield an understanding of why elections have the outcomes that they do: why turnout is high or low and why particular parties and/or candidates do well or badly. However, this was not so. Until recent work on turnout and party choice (Franklin 2004; van der Brug, van der Eijk and Franklin 2006) attempts at understanding aggregate election outcomes on the basis of individual-level analysis had been largely fruitless. Though we understood a lot about why some people support particular parties while other people support different parties, this understanding did not (by and large) translate into an under­standing of why support for some parties increased while other parties suffered electorally at particular elections. Equally, understanding why some people participate with their vote in an electoral contest while others stay home had not led to an understanding of why turnout was high or low, rising or falling. The macro-micro gap in election studies has been extensively discussed (see, for example, Dalton and Wattenberg 1993, Anker 1995, Erikson 2002). A dirty little secret of survey-based election studies is that they did not, by and large, lead to explanations of election outcomes.

            In my own work on voter turnout (Franklin 2004) and in my collaborative work on economic voting (van der Brug, van der Eijk and Franklin 2007) I have taken steps towards changing that. On the whole it is now possible to say that we understand why turnout at an election is high or low, rising or falling. More precision is certainly needed (my findings only let us predict turnout to within about 5 percent), but the big picture is now in place. Equally we can say, at least with regard to one important influence on election outcomes (the state of the economy) under what circumstances favorable developments will help an incumbent government party and under what circumstances they will not.

            The next step in our progression towards a better understanding of voting and elec­tions must be to address the vexing question of electoral realignments, and this is what I propose to do during the coming five years. Under what circumstances can parties pro­gress­ively lose support to the point where they are no longer ”normal parties of government” (or less attractive coalition partners)? Under what circumstances can parties progressively gain support, so that they become normal parties of government (or more attractive coalition partners)? Why do these developments sometimes occur quite rapidly (in the US in 1932, in Britain in 1945, in Italy in 1992) while more usually they occur quite slowly?

            These questions, and ones like them, have perplexed political scientists for many years. The classic work on the subject, written by V. O. Key Jr. (1955), proposed that re­alignments were occasions when large numbers of individuals changed their settled party preferences following a period of what he called “dealignment” in which settled preferences became less fixed, more malleable. At the time at which Key was writing, the most recent identifiable U.S. realignment had occurred in 1932 with the coming of the New Deal – a time before the existence of mass surveys based on random sampling – so it was not possible to subject his ideas to straightforward empirical tests. Nevertheless, the idea that millions of Americans had converted from strong Republican to strong Democrat support (perhaps by way of weak support for one or both parties) during the 1930s was contested in an amazing piece of journalistic reporting in which Samuel Lubell (1965) recounted his experience of interviewing literally hundreds of individuals, one by one over a period of years and all across the United States. He reported having found not a single person who had changed their partisan allegiance. This surprising finding was supported in a reconstruction of the 1930s electorate by Kristi Andersen (1979) using survey data from the 1960s that had asked people to report which party they had voted for on the first occasion when they had voted. On the basis of this recon­struction, Andersen concluded that the 1930s realignment in the United States was based on the mobilization of previously non-voting individuals – that is to say, through a renewal of the electorate yielding a change in its composition. Anderson’s recon­struction and the conclusions reached on the basis of this reconstruction were, however, strongly contested by various authors (for a review see Franklin and Ladner 1995) leaving the topic of electoral realignments in the US unsettled. American political scientists still do not know how U.S. political realignments occur, and the question of whether there has been a realignment of the U.S. electorate leading to the Republican victories of recent years is equally unsettled.

            In Europe the question of whether and how realignments occur presented itself differently than in the U.S., in terms of whether party systems (after their initial formation following the extensions of the franchise to adult males in European countries) were “frozen” in the mould of their birth (Lipset and Rokkan 1967) and whether and how this “freezing” came to an end. Franklin, Mackie, Valen et al. (1992) argued that the freezing of party systems had indeed been a fact of (West) European political life and had indeed ended in the 1970s and 1980s, and proposed an explanation for this development which (like Kristi Anderson’s explanation for the New Deal realignment) involved processes of electoral renewal in the form, this time, of generational replacement; but both the development and the explanation have been contested in more recent years (see especially Evans 1999).

            In the next five years I propose to turn my attention to the question of electoral stabil­ity and change, developing a theoretical approach that will view changes in U.S. and European party support as variations on a common theme. This approach will build on my recent work that links systemic, contextual and individual-level data and brings to bear the full power of contemporary empirical research methods. I will address the question of whether party realignments ever did require the renewal of an electorate and, if so, whether this requirement still exists. I will try to develop a theoretical approach that can encompass all sorts of electoral change in all sorts of political systems – not just classical realignments but contemporary “moods, cycles and swings” (Stimson 1999). In the process I hope to reclaim the term “electoral realignment” and use it to refer to any durable shift in the strength of partisan support, benefiting one or more parties and hurting others, especially if this affects their chances of gaining and holding government power.

It seems to me that the time is ripe for such a research programme. In the sixty years that have elapsed since the end of World War II, elections have been conducted continuously, without a break, in 22 countries. These events have bequeathed us an authoritative and access­ible record of turnout and party support over some four hundred elections in all. The data provided one of the prongs of my two-pronged attack on understanding voter turnout (Franklin 2004), and I propose to use them again in a study of the dynamics of party support. Complementing these data are individual-level interview data with citizens of eight countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S.A.) over a period of 35 years or more and covering ten elections or more in each country. Six of these countries (excluding Australia and Canada whose continuous record of election studies are shorter than elsewhere) provided data for the second prong of my attack on understanding voter turnout (2004). In my planned research I will use data from all eight countries to study continuity and change in party support.

In this project I plan to add a third prong to my empirical approach, using data from studies of elections to the European Parliament. Though we have fewer such studies (only four have yet been conducted in comparable terms) they do cover all the countries that are members of the European Union and they do provide a unique resource in terms of their com­para­bility across countries and over time. They also ask a unique set of questions – the basis for the study of economic voting (van der Brug, van der Eijk and Franklin 2007) already referred to – that give us leverage on the interaction between individual level party preferen­ces and the structure of party systems. These questions (which have also been asked in Dutch election studies since 1982 and in recent British, German, Irish, and Spanish election studies) ask respondents to tell us how likely it is that they would ever vote for each of the parties in their political system (van der Eijk, van der Brug, Kroh, and Franklin 2006), enabling us to picture the pattern of party preferences in each country which can be aggre­gated into a picture of the structure of party competition within each country.

It is our ability to place voters within the context of the competition between parties that permits us finally to move from individual-level party preferences to aggregate-level election outcomes.

My strategy in this research programme will be to investigate the dynamics of change in party support within the laboratory of European Union politics and then generalize those dynamics to other times and other countries, using the larger universe of countries to estab­lish the general validity of my theoretical and empirical approach. In the process I expect to publish papers (perhaps a book) about EU politics, as I have at earlier stages of my career (eg. van der Eijk, Franklin, et al. 1996); but the objective, as before, is to use the EU as a stepping stone towards a more general understanding of the mainsprings of political life. People in Europe are not different from people in other places, but they do live under a unique set of political institutions. I want to understand how those institutions impinge upon their political behaviour, and to use that understanding as a springboard to wider insights.

My hope is that in coming to understand electoral realignments generally we will also arrive at a better understanding of the dynamics of electoral change in Europe.


Andersen, Kristi (1979) The Creation of a Democratic Majority, 1928-1936. (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press).

Anker, Hans (1995) Normal Vote Analysis. (Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis).

Brug, Wouter van der, Cees van der Eijk and Mark Franklin (2007). The Economy and the Vote: Electoral responses to Economic Conditions in EU Countries, in press with Cambridge University Press.

Dalton, Russell, and Martin Wattenberg (1993) "The Not-So-Simple Act of Voting" in Ada Finifter, ed., Political Science: The State of the Discipline II. (Washington D.C. American Political Science Association).

Eijk, Cees van der, Wouter van der Brug, Martin Kroh and Mark Franklin (2006)"Rethinking the dependent variable in electoral behaviour - on the measurement and analysis of utilities" European Journal of Political Research (39:423-46).

Eijk, Cees van der, Mark Franklin, et al. (1996) Choosing Europe? The European Electorate and National Politics in the Face of Union (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).

Erikson, Robert (2002) "National Election Studies and Macro Analysis" in Mark N. Franklin and Christopher Wlezien, eds., The Future of Election Studies (Oxford: Pergamon).

Evans, Geoffrey, ed. (1999) The End of Class Politics? Class Voting in Comparative Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Franklin, Mark N. (2004) Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Franklin, Mark and Matthew Ladner (1995) "The Undoing of Winston Churchill: Mobilization and Conversion in the 1945 Realignment of British Voters," British Journal of Political Science (25) 429-452.

Franklin, Mark N., Thomas T. Mackie, Henry Valen, et al. (1992) Electoral Change: Responses to Evolving Social and Attitudinal Structures in Western Nations (Cambridge 1992: Cambridge University Press).

Key, V. O., Jr. (1955) "A Theory of Critical Elections," Journal of Politics (17).

Lipset, Seymour, and Stein Rokkan (1967) "Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments: An Introduction" in S. M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan, Party Systems and Voter Alignments:Cross-National Perspectives (New York: Free Press).

Lubell, Samuel (1965) The Future of American Politics (New York: Harper and Row).

Stimson, James (1999) Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles and Swings, (2nd ed., Boulder CO: Westview Press).