Small party electoral strategy

The strategy of parties, especially smaller ones, in multiparty systems is a particular interest of mine (a statement that will surprise no one). Here are a few interesting examples from the current New Zealand campaign.

One area of interest is about… interests. What interest groups do small parties cultivate for support?

Greens want to spend millions backing NZ game developers” was a headline on TV NZ on 12 September. Green Party Co-leader Dr Russel Norman says, “Game developers are currently locked out of the government support and grants that other creatives receive. Our plan remedies this anomaly”. Computer game developers are not an interest group I normally think about, but the Green Party has acknowledged them.

Photo credit: Errol Cavit, in Maungakiekie electorate. Used by permission. I am not there this year, so I rely on Errol for my election-sign photos. But you can still see my collection from 2011!

OK, so what about the racehorse industry? Check. Winston Peters recently reminded voters of “a 10-point plan from New Zealand First to save the racing industry”. In fact, earlier in the campaign, he gave a speech to the New Zealand Trainers’ Association. In the speech he claimed credit for past good deeds when he was Racing Minister in a Labour-led government:

In 2006, New Zealand First recognised the export potential of the New Zealand breeding industry and the need for improved international marketing, and achieved a much improved taxation regime through a reduction in totalisator duty and an accelerated write-down regime for bloodstock.

Peters added an allegation that “Over the past six years National has done nothing for the racing industry.”

Returning to the Greens, of course, the party is mostly an urban-based party. However, one of the characteristics of nationwide proportional representation is that votes anywhere help increase your aggregate seat total. And so the Greens’ co-leader Norman and their transport spokesperson, Julie Anne Genter, campaigned in the rural far north on their plans to make rebuilding storm-battered roads a priority. “Ms Genter said central government’s roading priorities meant there was not enough investment outside big cities.”

Additionally, Greens did a photo-op* at a dairy farm to announce their “Smart farming for clean rivers’ policy”. I suspect that one, unlike the one regarding roads in Northland, was mainly aimed at urban consumers. But the party does seek (and, apparently, receive) votes from the small-farm sector, especially organic and “sustainable” farms. Not to be outdone in this policy niche, a big party, National, has emphasized that its primary industries policy takes into account that:

Environmental sustainability is increasingly important to consumers around the world and this is a priority for National. We are cleaning up waterways and carefully manage fishing stocks, including the creation of two recreational fishing parks in the Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds.

National’s primary industries spokesman Nathan Guy also noted that “We will continue to support carefully-targeted irrigation projects that will deliver economic and environmental benefits for New Zealand.”

I must admit that I am happy New Zealand’s legislative term is just three years, and that it has a thriving multiparty system. These characteristics of NZ politics keep things interesting!

* The linked item has the photo and caption, but the story is about “Greens need to compromise to get ahead”. This is something that some of their subsequent statements indicate they are well aware of.

Green contamination

Political scientists who study mixed-member systems often refer to a concept of “contamination”.* One can find somewhat different meanings of the term in different works, but the most common conceptualization is the entry of candidates in nominal-tier districts where they can’t realistically win, but where their presence may help boost the list. The notion of “contamination” assumes that we should see a reduction towards two significant parties in the single-seat district, but this reduction may be retarded because of smaller parties’ vote-seeking for their party lists. The reasoning goes: the party may fail to mobilize supporters for its list if it is seen to have abandoned the district by not running a candidate.

Is the concept realistic? Scholarly literature is mixed (so to speak). But sometimes politicians act as though they believed political scientists. The Green Party in New Zealand seems to believe in contamination. (That was a fun sentence to write!)

First-term Green MP Holly Walker, elected form the list (like all Green MPs), is withdrawing her candidacy, according to the NZ Herald. Her list candidacy, that is. The article further notes,

Ms Walker, who will still contest the Hutt South seat in order to help the Greens’ party vote, said she was announcing the decision with “real sadness”.

So, even though she won’t be returning to parliament, her electorate campaign remains active, in order to attract votes to the list.

The NZ Green Party is an especially tough test for the contamination thesis, because Green voters in recent elections have shown a very strong tendency to split their tickets, strategically voting for the local Labour candidate. Ticket-splitting runs against the grain of the contamination thesis, which several authors have said is valid only to the extent that voters are generally reluctant to split their tickets.

However, the basic notion of contamination, as I articulated it above, is that the party can’t be seen to have abandoned the district. To do so would reduce their ability to get list votes. The logic does not actually require that voters vote for the district candidate. It only requires that the party’s putting a human face on the list by nominating a candidate in the district helps the party’s list vote. That seems to be precisely what the Greens and Walker are counting on.

* Other authors call it “spillover”. A short bibliography on the topic (and I should note that not all these authors claim to find such an effect, and some specifically argue against it):

Cox, Karen E., & Schoppa, Leonard J. (2002). “Interaction effects in mixed-member electoral systems: Theory and evidence from Germany, Japan, and Italy.” Comparative Political Studies, 35, 1027-1053.

Crisp, Brian F., Joshua D. Potter, and John J. W. Lee. 2012. “Entry and Coordination in Mixed-Member Systems: A Controlled Comparison Testing the Contamination Hypothesis.” The Journal of Politics 74 (02): 571–583.

Ferrara, Federico, & Herron, Erik S. (2005). “Going it alone? Strategic entry under mixed electoral rules.” American Journal of Political Science, 49, 16-31.

Herron, Erik S., and Misa Nishikawa. 2001. “Contamination Effects and the Number of Parties in Mixed-Superposition Electoral Systems.” Electoral Studies 20(1): 63– 86.

Karp, Jeffrey A. 2009. “Candidate effects and spill-over in mixed systems: Evidence from New Zealand.” Electoral Studies 28(1): 41–50.

Ellis S. Krauss, Kuniaki Nemoto and Robert Pekkanen, “Reverse Contamination: Burning and Building Bridges in Mixed Member Systems,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 45, No. 6 (June 2012), pp. 747-77.

Moser, Robert G., and Ethan Scheiner. Electoral Systems and Political Context. Cambridge, 2012.