France 2022: Assessing the honeymoon election and towards a model of the impact of election timing on the president’s party’s seats

Was the French 2022 honeymoon election one that defies the usual impact of such election timing? Not to offer a spoiler, but the answer is yes and no.

Back around the time of the presidential runoff, I restated what I often say about elections for assembly held shortly after a presidential election: they are not an opportunity for the voters to “check” the president they have just chosen; presidential and semi-presidential systems just do not work that way. Well, usually. It seems hard to escape the notion that voters did just that–by holding Emmanuel Macron’s allies in Ensemble to less than a majority of seats, and by delivering bigger than expected seat totals to the Mélenchon-led united left (Nupes) and even to Le Pen’s National Rally (RN).

There will not be cohabitation, which was what I really meant in the French context when saying that honeymoon elections were not an opportunity to check the president. The results have not offered up any conceivable assembly majority that would impose its own choice for premier on Macron. I was also generally careful to say that I thought Macron’s allies would win a majority of seats, or close to it. They are relatively close, but considerably farther away that I expected, on about 42%. So, how does this outcome compare to honeymoon elections generally?

I have prepared an updated version of a graph I have shared before. An earlier version appears in Votes from Seats, as Figure 12.2. The x-axis is elapsed time, E, defined as the share of the period between presidential elections at which the assembly election occurs. The y-axis is the presidential seat ratio, RP, calculated by dividing the vote share of the party (or pre-electoral alliance) supporting the president by the president’s own vote share in the first or sole round. The diagonal line is a regression best fit on the nonconcurrent elections (those with E>0), and is RP=1.2–0.7E.

I added the France 2022 data point and label a little larger than the others, to call attention to it. The most notable thing is that this is the only case of a really extreme honeymoon–defined loosely as those with E<.05 but E>0–to have a value of RP<1.00. So in that sense, it is a poor performance. There are other honeymoons for which E≤0.1 that are below RP=1.00, including Chile 1965 and Poland 2001. In the Chilean case, the result obtains simply because the right did not present its own presidential candidate, but ran separately in the congressional election. Although this post is focused on honeymoon and other nonconcurrent elections, I also added labels to the two cases of concurrent elections (E=0) that have unusually low presidential vote ratios. Note that on average, RP in concurrent elections tends to be a bit below 1.00, as a combination of strategic voting and small-party abstention from the presidential contest leads assembly voting to be more fragmented than presidential voting, hence lowering RP. However, in very early term elections, the president’s party/alliance almost always gains. So France 2022 is unusual, but not a massive outlier. In fact, in terms of distance from the regression line, it is about equivalent to France 1997 or El Salvador 2006 (labelled).

We see that the 2022 election also features the lowest RP of any of France’s six honeymoon elections to date. The 2002 election (Chirac) produced an especially huge boost, whereas the 2017 election, when Macron had just been elected the first time, is almost on the regression line. (The regression does not include elections after 2015 because the dataset was collected around then; I added these more recent ones to the graph directly.) I also want to call attention to Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s 2019 honeymoon result in Ukraine for Servants of the People, as it is also among the most extreme honeymoon vote surges recorded anywhere as expected, perhaps aided by how uninstitutionalized that country’s party system has been. (If I wanted to be provocative, I’d say that factor also has been present in France, given frequent realignments on the right, the emergence of Macron, etc.)

(As an aside, I was somewhat surprised that an outlier, the one case of E>0.6 to have RP>1 is the French late-midterm election of 1986. This is remembered as the election that produced the first cohabitation of the French Fifth Republic. But the vote share of the Socialists was still considerably higher than Mitterrand’s own vote share in the presidential first round of 1981, when the Communists had presented their own candidate.1)

So much for the votes. I was wondering what happens if we look at seats? Strangely I had never done this before (at least with this dataset). This graph has as its y-axis the seat share of the president’s party (or alliance) divided by the president’s own first or sole-round votes, which I will call RPs. The x-axis is the same. In addition to plotting a best fit line, the diagonal, I also added the 95% confidence intervals from the regression estimates to this graph. There is also a lowess (local regression) plotted as the very thin grey line. Note how flat it is for a long portion of the term, a fact related to a point I will come to at the end (and also suggesting a more complex than linear fit may be more accurate, but I want to keep it simple for now).

The regression line here is very close to RPs=1.5–E, which is a wonderfully elegant formula! It says that at a midterm election, a president’s party’s seat share would be, all else equal, the same as his or her own vote share half a term earlier. At a truly extreme honeymoon election–imagine one held the day after the president was elected, but with the result known–the seat share would be about 1.5 times the president’s vote share. At an extreme counter-honeymoon it would drop to around 0.5. So where did Macron’s Ensemble come out in the election just concluded? His RPs=1.52! So the party actually did about what the average trend says to expect. It was his 2017 surge that was higher than we perhaps should have expected (although, again, not as high as Chirac’s in 2002).

The result in the second figure is obviously holding constant the electoral system, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, given the importance of variation in electoral systems in shaping the size of the largest party (which is usually the president’s party, at least until we get to midterms and beyond).

What I find particularly elegant about the equation is its suggestion that midterm elections are no-effect elections, in terms of seat share for the president’s party. This was presumably what major party leaders were going for in the Dominican Republic when they shifted to the world’s only ever case (to my knowledge) of an all-midterm cycle. Both president and congress were elected to four-year terms, each at the halfway point of the other. (Actual outcomes during were not always no-effect, though on average they were close2; they have since changed back to their former concurrent elections.) This may seem a surprise to readers who know the American system and its infamous midterm decline, but actually the midterm-election median in the US is 0.969. In an almost pure two-party system, anything below 1.00 might look bad, and be both politically consequential and also somewhat over-interpreted. But 0.969 is not really that much below 1.00! Okay I am cheating just a little by reporting the median. The mean is 0.943; it is brought down by a few major “shellackings” like 2010 (0.891), although 1990 was worse (0.719, in this case because G.H.W. Bush had won such a big landslide of his own).3

In concurrent elections, the regression suggests also that on average, RPs is around 1.00. For the US, the median is 0.979, and the mean is 1.009. Note how it is higher than the midterm average, but perhaps not as much as one might expect.4

At this point, both these equations are just empirical regression best fits, not logical models. There is logic behind the general effects of electoral cycles on a presidential party’s performance, but not a logical basis for the specific parameters observed. I would very much like to have such a logical basis, but I have not hit upon it. Yet.

(Considerably nerdier and some rather half-baked stuff the rest of the way.) Such a logical model may be closer now that there is a simple and elegant empirical connection between presidential votes and seats. Seat shares are more directly connected to parameters of the electoral system than votes shares are–even vote shares for assembly parties, but vote shares for presidential candidates are a good deal more remote from the assembly electoral system. Nonetheless, in Votes from Seats we do derive a predictive formula for the effective number of presidential candidates, based on the assembly’s seat product. A regression reported in the book confirms its plausibility, but with rather low R2. From that formula one could get an expected relationship for the leading presidential candidate’s vote total, vp. It would be vp = 2–3/8[(MS)1/4 +1]–1/4. We already have, for the seat share of the largest party, s1=(MS)–1/8. It so happens that these return the same value at around MS=175. Expectations of vp<s1 or s1<vp would then depend on whether MS (mean district magnitude times assembly size) is higher or lower than 175; for most presidential systems it is a good deal higher (the median in this sample of elections, including semi-presidential, is 480). Tying this observation to the one about midterm elections (E=0.5) yielding actual (not predicted) sp=vp and accepting for simplification that the president’s party seat share (sp) is also the largest party seat share, at least in elections that are not after the midterm, might be a path towards a model. But that may take a while yet. Below I will copy a table of what the formulas for vp and s1 yield at various values of seat product, MS, for simple systems. These values of s1 are without regard to elapsed time when the assembly election takes place.

Table of expected values of presidential vote shares (pv) and largest assembly party seat share (s1)

Footnotes

1. Also, Mitterand himself had finished second in the first round, with 25.9% of the votes (the incumbent, Giscard, had 28.3%). The Communist candidate had 15.4%. In the 1986 election, Socialists won 31% of the votes, for RP=1.2. (I am not counting the Communists as part of Mitterrand’s alliance by then, as he had fired the Communist ministers that were in his initial cabinet.)
2. The values for RPs in these Dominican elections were: 0.587 in 1998, 0.975 in 2002, 0.945 in 2006, and 1.067 in 2010. So other than that first run, if the no-effect was what they wanted, they basically got it.
3. [Added, 21 June.] I somehow forgot that my first publication on this topic, in the APSR in 1995, also used seats as its outcome of interest–but it was change in seat percentage for the president’s party from the prior assembly election (with president’s vote share as a control). Looking back on that pub, I see that my regression there would agree with my updated analysis here in suggesting that midterm elections, all else constant, are no-effect elections. The regression line clearly passes very near the change=0, E=0.5 point in the article’s Figure 1. And, yes, in that article I commented on this as a “particularly striking feature” (p. 332).
4. The way I set up the regression, its constant term would be the RPs when E=0, a concurrent election. This constant is actually 0.95, but its 95% confidence interval includes 1.00 (it is 0.844–1.057). The coefficient on the nonconcurrent dummy is 0.552, from which I get the approximation, 1.5, in the equation in the second figure (summing this coefficient and the constant). The coefficient on E is –1.072. R2=0.215.

Ukraine will have an early election

Well, it did not take long to learn the answer to my question. Yes, Ukraine will have an early election, as President Volodomyr Zelenskyy announced on 19 May in his inaugural address. And thus, no, the current electoral system will not be replaced just yet.

The election is expected to be in July, a scenario I already discussed in the earlier post.

In the context of all this, today (20 May) the Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman, announced his resignation.

There had been a report last week that a dissolution of the coalition in the assembly would prevent the new president from calling an early election (because it would buy the assembly time to attempt to find, under terms of the constitution, an alternative premier they can agree on). But evidently not.

Ukraine: Possible early election and electoral reform (again?)

According to Hromadske (15 May), newly elected Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy is considering dissolving parliament. Moreover, there is also consideration of electoral reform in a country that seems almost never to hold more than an election or two under the same rules.

Currently, an election to the national assembly is scheduled for 27 October. At about six months out from the presidential election, that timing is clearly a “honeymoon” election, and we know the impact those have. But waiting that long is not ideal for Zelenskyy, given he has almost no partisan support in the current assembly, having cobbled together his own campaign vehicle for his presidential run. His newly formed party is named after the TV show that made him famous, Servant of the People.

In the first round of the presidential election, on 31 March, Zelenskyy placed first with 30.2%, nearly doubling the runner-up, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. In third place was perennial candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, with 13.4%. Four others had between 5% and 12%. There were thirty nine candidates in total! In the second round (21 April), Zelenskyy crushed Poroshenko, with nearly 75% of the valid votes cast. (I wonder if it would have been closer if Tymoshenko had made the runoff, or more competitive if ranked-choice voting had moved her or another candidate up into the final two.)

If the election goes ahead in late October as planned, it would be held with about 10% of the presidential inter-electoral period elapsed. The equation reported in Votes from Seats would imply that the Servant of the People party could expect around a third of the vote. (See my entry immediately after Macron’s win in France for the equation, graph of data from many countries, and discussion; note that our equation is based on first-round votes, and any fit to actual data would be much worse if runoff votes were used.)

One might understand why he thinks that is not enough. It is not clear to me what the date of the election might be if it is moved up. But let’s say it was 28 July instead. That would mean about 5% of the inter-electoral period elapsed, which would lead to an estimated vote share for the president’s party of… 34.5%. In other words, it is hardly worth the trouble!

Of course, the actual figure could be above these estimates–or below. One poll alluded to in Hromadske said that Servant of the People was the choice of only 25% of the people, a figure that would be a pretty disappointing honeymoon result. The more important point is that a three-month difference in timing does not really matter much for the honeymoon effect. Further, with no existing party to speak of, it might even be smart to allow more time to build the party and recruit candidates. And here is where the question of electoral system choice comes in.

Some electoral systems would be more demanding for candidate recruitment by a fledgling party than others. The current system is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) and consists of 225 single-seat districts (plurality) and 225 closed-list seats (single nationwide district). Finding viable candidates to be personal representatives of the party in 225 districts is more of a challenge than filling out a closed list.

In fact, this challenge is mentioned in the Hromadske article, which states, correctly in my view, that “Returning to the closed list proportional electoral system would be most beneficial to the president-elect and his team.”  The “return” referred to here would be to the system used in 2006 and 2007 that used a single nationwide district for all 450 seats, and a closed list.

Other systems that are under consideration in the current parliament are a regionalization of the list component, and an “open list”. (I am not sure they really mean an open list, as that term has been applied misleadingly to a current local electoral system that is more along the lines of district-ordered list.) Regarding the latter option, Hromadske notes, “For Zelenskyy, it is easier to handpick a list of candidates [for a closed list], than to look for people, known locally in the regions, who could potentially win in an open list system.”

If the election is called early, of course the current system will prevail. Whether Zelenskyy can get the election earlier depended on precisely when he would be inaugurated (Hromadske explains). The date for the inauguration was just set in a vote on 16 May to take place on 20 May. This seems to allow time for an early dissolution, as the Hromadske article states that Zelenskyy and his team figured the last date for making such a decision was 27 May (though one loophole could allow that to be extended into June, perhaps).

Ukraine has developed a record of consistent changes of government and legislative majorities through elections, yet it has been anything but consistent with its electoral rules, or election timing.

France 2017: Round 4 (honeymoon elections and presidentialization matters!)

Today is the fourth round of the French 2017 election process–that is, the runoffs of the honeymoon assembly election.

Following round 1 (the first round of the presidential election), I used a formula (from Shugart and Taagepera, 2017, Votes from Seats) to “predict” what the round 3 (first round, assembly election) vote percentage would be for the party of first-round leader Emmanuel Macron (on the safe assumption he would win the second round). I pegged it at 29%, based only on Macron’s first-round vote and the elapsed time between then and the scheduled date of the assembly first round.

In the actual voting, La Republique En Marche! (LREM) got around 32%, although I believe that also includes some small vote share for MoDem (which was part of a pre-election coalition). In any case, I won’t quibble about an error of ±3 percentage points. At the time, various commentators were fretting over how “weak” EM would be, what with an untested party and Macon’s having come from seemingly nowhere. Some folks even were wringing their hands over possible cohabitation. It did not take long for polls to catch up with the institutional reality, which is that honeymoon elections matter. The voting result was highly predictable.

Where I went well off the rails was in questioning whether a plurality of votes of around 30% in the first round could translate into an assembly majority. I noted that similar percentages of the vote in previous first rounds in France had translated into around half the seats, but that a safer prediction might be for Macron’s party to be just short. I was not worried about a “weak” presidency, but I thought some degree of post-electoral bargaining would be necessary.

Well, that was silly. I somehow forgot that our assumptions about how votes translate into seats in France are based on the “textbook” French V party system, whereby there are many parties, but two dominant blocs. In such a setting, a leading party (such as a just-elected president’s) with around 30% of the vote would be just far enough ahead of both its allies and the leading party of the opposing bloc so as to translate into a solid majority of seats for the alliance, but not necessarily for the leading party itself. The bloc of the loser of the second round, in the “textbook” party system, is not so far behind the president’s bloc. Therefore, you get a clear pro-presidential majority, but not a knock-out.

Two things should have given me pause. First of all, that the second round presidential candidate was of the National Front, so 2002 would be a better guide than, say, 2012. In 2002, the party of the second major bloc (i.e., the Socialists, whose presidential candidate had finished third) suffered terribly from the honeymoon cycle, and of course, the FN assembly candidates did poorly for lack of allies. This allowed just 33% of the first-round votes for the newly elected president’s party to translate into more than 62% of the seats.

Second, and more to the point, the party system of France 2017 has collapsed badly. Thus being at only 30% of the votes makes you a dominant player in what is, for the time being, a one-bloc system. If you are the centrist party in a two-round system, it does not matter that you lack allied parties in a bloc; what matters is that you have no opposing parties that combine for a coherent bloc against you. Seat projections, issued on the day of the first round of the assembly election, suggested that LREM could get over 400 seats. Some even say 475 (out of 577). LREM candidates will win by default, because in relatively few districts will there be active coordination against them. Moreover, turnout is (predictably) low today.

The following screen shot from Henry Schlechta on Twitter, shows just how dominant the LREM is in today’s runoffs. In other words, don’t let 32% of the first-round votes fool you (as it did me). With different opponents in different districts, from different political camps, there is no reason not to expect a massive majority.

Now that everyone seems to accept that LREM will have a big majority, the concerns (expressed in various news media stories) has shifted to how difficult it may be to govern with a party full of novices. Such concerns are also misplaced. That the party is full of novice politicians makes it more, not less, likely that it will stick to Macron even when times get tough. They have nowhere else to go. They owe their nominations and assembly seats to Macron. France 2017 is presidentialization on steroids!. And, remember, honeymoon elections matter.