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date: 16 August 2017

Left-Right Orientations and Voting Behavior

Summary and Keywords

One of the ways that citizens and elites orient themselves to politics is in reference to a Left-Right vocabulary. Left and Right, respectively, refer to a specific set of progressive and conservative policy preferences and political goals. Thus, Left-Right becomes a framework for positioning oneself, political figures, and political parties into a common framework. Most citizens identify themselves in Left-Right terms and their distribution of these orientations vary across nations. These orientations arise both from long-term societal influences and from the short-term issues of the day. Most people also place political parties in Left-Right terms. This leads citizens to use Left-Right comparisons as an important factor in their voting choice, although this impact varies considerably across nations. Most parties attract voters that broadly share their Left-Right orientations.

Keywords: Left, Right, ideology, issues, voting, political parties, polarization


People often face a daunting challenge when they have to decide how to cast their vote in an election. In many parliamentary systems, voters face a wide choice of parties, each of which offers its own view of political reality and its proposals for the future. In the 2012 Dutch parliamentary election, for instance, 11 parties won at least one seat in the Tweede Kamer. These parties included one dedicated to animal rights and another focused on pensioners’ needs. Conservative voters could select among several parties on the right; Leftist voters similarly saw several parties that claimed to represent their views. Friends, family, the media, and other pundits weighed in on the merits of each party. Moreover, parties take positions on a wide range of issues, and judging each party’s policy intent is a challenging task—even for political experts. In short, the simple act of voting is not such a simple decision in many cases.

Democracy depends on citizens voting for parties that share their political values, so that the public is well represented in the political process. The party representation model makes three basic assumptions about citizens and their voting choices:

  • People have informed political preferences and policy choices.

  • They make judgments about which party best represents these preferences.

  • These perceptions guide voting behavior.

Without such content and structure, elections could become irrelevant expressions of opinions or habitual expressions of group loyalties rather than instrumental acts of governance.

While other contributions to this collection examine the impact of specific issues on voting choice (see Timothy Hellwig’s ORE article “Dead Ends and New Paths in the Study of Economic Voting”; and Ian McAllister’s ORE article “Candidates and Voting Choice”), this article argues that broad political orientations, represented by the Left-Right dimension, offer a shortcut for organizing political beliefs and making political choices. The Left-Right dimension can summarize citizens’ and parties’ positions on the issues of the day, accepting that the understanding of the terms Left and Right can differ across political actors and countries, as well as change over time.

The concepts of Left and Right have a long political tradition (Mair, 2009). The terms were first used as a shorthand to the seating arrangements of liberal and conservative parties in the French Assembly during the Revolution. These terms were common in contemporary political discourse, as politicians and political pundits describe party and candidate positions using Left-Right terminology. In virtually every election, news reports describe one party as moving toward the Left (or Right) and another party as moving toward the Center. The ubiquitous usage of the terms makes it a common way to summarize a person’s political positions and the positions of parties, and thus a cue for voting choice.

This article first discusses the concept of policy voting and the use of the Left-Right framework to capture this process. Then it describes whether most voters in democratic political systems can position themselves on the Left-Right scale, as well as the bases of these orientations in political issues and partisanship. Then we describe the influence of Left-Right attitudes on voting choices. Finally, this discussion considers the topics confronting future research in this area.

Left-Right as a Tool for Making Policy Choices

If elections are to be meaningful guides to democratic government, electoral choices must have substantial policy content. The degree of policy voting is thus an important component of effective representative democracy. If citizens’ voting choices lack meaningful political content, then the representative democracy linkage ends at this point.

A large and rich literature has examined the impact of issue voting in specific nations or in specific elections. Issue voting often involves long-standing economic or religious cleavages and the issues derived from these cleavages (see Oddbjørn Knutsen’s ORE article “Social Structure and Voting Choice”). Downward economic cycles inevitably generate concerns about the economic role of government and individual economic security (see Timothy Hellwig’s ORE article “Dead Ends and New Paths in the Study of Economic Voting”). Similarly, international events stimulate policy controversies, such as the recent debate over immigration in several European nations, as well as issues related to globalization and international terrorism. Concerns about nuclear energy, gender equality, and environmental protection have entered the political agenda in recent decades. Until fairly recently, politicians and voters did not even know that problems of global warming existed.

However, a considerable number of studies argue that a large proportion of the public lacks the ability or motivation to make informed electoral choices. Some researchers stress the limited political sophistication and knowledge of many citizens (Converse, 1964; Best & McDonald, 2011). Another critique emphasizes the non-policy bases of electoral choice, noting that some voters cast their ballots based on personal idiosyncrasies, habitual partisan loyalties, or even attractiveness (see Russell Dalton’s ORE article “Party Identification and Its Implications”; also see Ian McAllister’s ORE article “Candidates and Voting Choice”). Few voters—even few political science professors—have the time or inclination to be fully informed on all the issues in each election.

Given the diversity of political issues and the average citizen’s limited time to devote to collecting information and making policy choices, most scholars accept that people must use shortcuts to simplify their voting decisions. Downs (1957), for example, viewed Left-Right labels as a way to reduce the cost of collecting political information rather than as fully informed ideological orientations. As he explained, this shortcut can save voters the cost of gathering information on a wide range of issues. Indeed, electoral scholars routinely interpret shifts in party vote shares as reflecting a leftward or rightward shift. In media and academic analyses of elections, the Left-Right dimension is a shorthand for summarizing issues, party positions, and the dynamics of electoral choice.1

This approach accepts that most citizens do not have a sophisticated philosophical understanding of ideological concepts such as socialism or liberalism, which are traditionally embedded in the terms Left and Right. Instead, the Left-Right framework provides a political heuristic that helps orient the person to politics by positioning oneself in Left-Right terms. In addition, the identity simplifies choice by framing electoral options in terms of a Left and Right continuum. You undoubtedly have heard one party described as leftist (or liberal), while another is described as rightist (or conservative). This is a potent political cue on the parties’ overall positions. Left-Right also provides a general reference framework so that people can discuss the broad course of government beyond each specific issue. In fact, such broad guidance of government is probably the most that elections can achieve, since so many specific issues are debated in any election.

Left-Right orientations are important to the extent that they have a political content, although the nature of this content is also a source of debate that we discuss later in this article. Researchers argue that the Left-Right scale is valuable exactly because it summarizes positions on a wide range of issues. Even if the specific definitions of Left and Right vary across individuals (and even nations), the simple structure of a general Left-Right scale can summarize the political positions of voters, candidates, and parties. Inglehart (1990, p. 273) thus describes the scale as a sort of superissue that represents the “major conflicts that are present in the political system.”

Holding Left-Right Positions

The first step in considering ideological voting is whether people actually can locate themselves along a Left-Right spectrum. To some, it is a summary of their current political views. To others, it is a political identity, a tendance, reflecting a broad political orientation that may lead to voting choices from a family of compatible parties. To yet others, their Left-Right responses seem to reflect their current party choices (Inglehart & Klingemann, 1976).

The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) is one example of a survey that asked respondents to position themselves along a Left-Right scale using a commonly asked question.2 In this study, and most other cross-national surveys of democracies (and in some autocratic systems), a substantial majority of the public can position themselves on the Left-Right scale (Eijk, Schmitt, & Binder, 2005; Mair, 2009). Figure 1 shows the percentage of the public in each nation who locate themselves on the Left-Right scale. On average, almost 90% of these people have a Left-Right position. This high level transcends old and new democracies and nations of quite different heritages. For instance, more than 90% of people in many established democracies express a Left-Right self-location, but so do Slovakians, Czechs, and South Africans, who have relatively new party systems. The nations with low levels of Left-Right self-placements are also relatively mixed. The percentage placing themselves on the scale only drops below two-thirds in Croatia and Taiwan. Furthermore, the generally high levels of Left-Right self-placements in the CSES are largely consistent with evidence from the earlier waves of the CSES and World Values Survey. The commonality of Left-Right positions seems to be related to the use of these terms in political discourse in the nation and the nature of the parties in the system.

Left-Right Orientations and Voting BehaviorClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Percentage of the Public Positioning Themselves on the Left-Right Scale

Source: CSES Module III, 2006–2011.

Note: The figure displays the percentage of the public in each nation that can position themselves on the Left-Right scale.

The possession of Left-Right orientations varies, as one might expect (Fuchs & Klingemann, 1989; Dalton, Farrell, & McAllister, 2011, chap. 4). People with higher levels of education are more likely to position themselves on this scale, as are those who score highly on an index of political information. Strong partisans are more likely to have a Left-Right position because these orientations are often party-linked. Left-Right identities are predictably more common among those who actually voted in previous elections. These patterns suggest that these orientations are linked to cognitive skills and political engagement. Nevertheless, even the majority of less sophisticated and less involved citizens can identify themselves in Left-Right terms.

Most opinion surveys find that people locate themselves along the Left-Right dimension on something like a bell curve, with most people at the center of the scale and the numbers trailing off to the Left and Right.3 Early theoretical writings, such as Downs (1957), theorized that this was the common pattern, and most current empirical studies of the Left-Right dimension confirm this point. This is the empirical basis of predictions that parties and candidates move toward the center in elections because that is where most voters reside.

At the same time, nations vary in their average distribution along the Left-Right scale. Traditionally, cross-national studies have shown that citizens in southern European nations lean toward the left end of the dimension (Inglehart & Klingemann, 1976; Freire, 2006b). Several of the postcommunist nations of Eastern Europe also tilt leftward (Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2012; Freire & Kivistik, 2016). In contrast, the most conservative nations are a mix of developing democracies, such as Mexico or the Philippines, as well as the United States. Cross-national research routinely finds that Americans are more conservative than most other nations, reflecting a mix of the nation’s individualist traditions and the still strong religious attachments of Americans (Dalton, Farrell, & McAllister, 2011, chap. 4).

Another issue is the degree of polarization on the Left-Right scale. Bell (2000) claimed there has been an “End of Ideology” in affluent democracies, as people become more centrist in their political positions. This appears to be an overstatement, since we see that the end of one ideological conflict seems to allow others to emerge. There is no shortage of ideological debate in the world today. However, there is some evidence that intense ideological polarization, with people locating themselves near the poles of the Left-Right dimension, is more common in developing nations than in affluent democracies (Dalton, 2006). Furthermore, with social and political modernization in these societies, the distributions of citizens’ views tend to moderate and move toward the center (Jou, 2016; Knutsen, 1998a).

This is not to say that the percentage of people located at both ends of the Left-Right scale will continue to diminish. The increasing variety of media outlets might create more polarized political views because of selective partisan exposure, which refers to viewers choosing outlets that correspond to and reinforce their own political preferences (Levendusky, 2013). While many people with moderate opinions may simply stay away from polarized media outlets, those who are already at the extreme right or left can become even more extreme, thus maintaining (if not exacerbating) the overall level of polarization. New political controversies also can repolarize opinions.

The ability of people to locate themselves along a Left-Right dimension is the first indication that this scale can provide a framework for voting choice. This is a single metric that citizens, parties, and other political actors can use to locate themselves relative to each other.

What Shapes Left-Right Positions?

What shapes a person’s position on the Left-Right scale? One method asks people what they think is the meaning of the terms Left and Right (Fuchs & Klingemann, 1989; Inglehart & Klingemann, 1976). One of the largest categories of responses refers to political parties or social groups as the embodiment of these terms. Research routinely links Left-Right positions to individual’s class and religious or other social characteristics (Knutsen, 1997; Freire, 2006a). For example, the Left is the traditional advocate of working class interests, while the Right supports the positions of the middle class and professionals. Thus, a person’s social class guides her or him to a general location on the Left-Right scale. In other nations, religious cleavages might structure political competition. There, the Left becomes synonymous with secular interests and a limited social and political role for religious organizations, and the Right acts as a representative for the dominant religious interests in the society. In other nations, the social divisions may be along nationalist lines or racial/ethnic divisions. All these social group cleavages can become a basis of partisan divisions that take on Left-Right terms as a shortcut terminology.

Another source of Left-Right positions stems from the political values and issues held by the voter. Individuals’ issue positions are often strongly linked to their Left-Right orientation. Downs (1957, p. 116) originally saw Left-Right positions as representing “how much government intervention in the economy should there be.” Inglehart and Klingemann (1976) found that among those who can articulate a reasonable answer to the meaning of Left and Right, some type of ideological or policy content was the most common response. Indeed, there are long-standing presumptions that the Left favors greater government control of the economy, while the Right seeks a free market, with few restrictions on economic activity. Research often finds that economic issues are strongly related to citizen positions on the Left-Right dimension, at least in the established democracies (Knutsen, 1995; Dalton, 2006; Hellwig, 2014).

More recently, Left-Right attitudes are connected to a new set of cultural or postmaterial issues in affluent democracies (Inglehart, 1990; Kitschelt & Hellemans, 1990). These include issues of gender equality, immigration, multiculturalism, lifestyle choices, and quality of life. One of the most prominent examples of these new issues is environmental policy. While some green groups explicitly claim that they are neither Left nor Right, green groups are increasingly viewed as being on the Left (or the New Left), both by the parties and by voters. And these issues also give rise to New Right movements and parties that hold opposing positions on these same issues. This New Left–New Right contrast is generally viewed as being somewhat separate from traditional Left-Right alignments based on class and economic issues.

Recent research shows that the meaning of Left-Right is changing over time, at least among the public in Western countries. For example, a longitudinal study of the Dutch public found that the correlation between economic redistributive attitudes and Left-Right has weakened since 1980, while the correlation with anti-immigrant attitudes has strengthened (de Vries et al., 2013; Knutsen, 1998b). Other research suggests that this pattern is common across affluent democracies; contemporary political debates are as likely to focus on individual rights or multiculturalism as they are to include the economic role of the state or social programs (Dalton, Farrell, & McAllister, 2011, chap. 5).

A different set of political cleavages may exist in new democracies. Often the transition to democracy involves differences in regime orientations, between democratizing forces and those with attachments to the previous regime (Kitschelt, Mansfeldova, Markowski, & Toka, 1999; Tworzecki, 2003; Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2012; Freire & Kivistik, 2013). Bell (2000) emphasized the importance of nationalism, ethnicity, pan-Arabism, and other ideological conflicts in the developing world. Territorial disputes and conflicts over national identity, or political divisions based on race or ethnicity, could provide political content to the meaning of Left-Right positions. Gender roles also reflect a conflict over traditional and modern values in many of these same nations. Consequently, research shows that attitudes such as national identity, support for democracy, and issues more relevant to developing democracies are more strongly related to Left-Right orientations in these nations (Dalton, 2006; Lee, 2007; Jou, 2011).

The main point of these analyses is that Left-Right attitudes display significant issue groundings, even if the relevant issues vary across nations or across time. This implies that Left-Right can be treated as a “superissue” that subsumes the major political controversies of the day, and many researchers and political commentators use it in this way.

A third perspective holds that Left-Right positions arise from party attachments (Inglehart & Klingemann, 1976; Knutsen, 1997; Freire, 2006a). Research routinely finds a strong correlation between Left-Right orientations and partisanship in established democracies, somewhat as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, many political parties describe themselves in Left-Right terms, thereby providing voters with important cues. The leftist tendencies of labor or socialist parties are easily apparent to voters, as are the rightist tendencies of conservative or Christian Democratic parties. Mair (2009, p. 208) noted that “a reasonably large group of parties seem happy to use the term ‘left’ in their titles, and although even more parties employ some version of the term ‘center’, it is relatively difficult to find parties which are willing to use the term ‘right’.” Partisanship is a very useful shortcut for citizens since voting involves party choice, although Left-Right attitudes may also exist separate from partisan ties. The same logic should extend (perhaps in attenuated form) to developing democracies, where party identities and Left-Right orientations are still evolving.

In summary, Left-Right attitudes come from many sources, from early life experiences to current issue positions to the cues from preferred parties. The important point is that Left-Right orientations are an efficient way for people to understand, organize, and store political information. And they can be a source of relatively enduring political identities. Left-Right attitudes thus can provide cues to guide citizens’ behavior and voting choice in an increasingly complex political world.

Placing Parties on the Left-Right Scale

If one’s Left-Right position summarizes what one wants from politics, then the next step is to find a party or politician who represents these views. In other words, just as consumers often look for the closest store that meets their needs when they are making a purchase, people look for a party that is nearest to their political position when they are deciding on their vote. Except in politics, distances are not measured in miles, but in issue or ideological terms.

This framework assumes that people can reasonably recognize the parties’ positions on the Left-Right scale in order to know which one shares their positions. Some researchers question the meaningfulness of the public’s own understanding of Left-Right terminology, and there are even more doubts about the public’s ability to recognize the political parties’ positions accurately (Best & McDonald, 2011). Unless voters can make such judgments, however, the representation of policy interests through the Left-Right scale is largely moot.

Several national and cross-national studies argue that the public’s Left-Right perceptions of the political parties are reasonably accurate and relatively stable over time (Esaiasson & Holmberg, 1996; Rohrschneider, 2015; Dalton & McAllister, 2015).

Figure 2 uses the CSES study to illustrate how many people are able to position the major parties in their nation along the Left-Right scale. In nations such as Taiwan and Romania, where individuals have difficulty locating themselves on the scale, barely half the public can locate the parties. But in most nations, most voters can position the large parties on the Left-Right scale and even the distinct ideological parties on the Left and Right extremes. Across these 31 nations, an average of 90% of the respondents could position the parties on the Left-Right scale. And when parties change their profile, such as with Tony Blair’s centrist New Labour program in Britain in the 1990s, people recognized this change. Thus, there is considerable evidence that citizens as a whole can locate the major political parties along the Left-Right dimension, although recognition drops off for small parties, new parties, and parties far from a person’s own position.

Left-Right Orientations and Voting BehaviorClick to view larger

Figure 2. Percentage of the Public That Can Position the Two Largest Parties on the Left-Right Scale

Source: CSES Module III, 2006–2011.

Note: The figure displays the percentage of the public in each nation that can position the two largest parties on the Left-Right scale.

If we combine the position of the average voter on the Left-Right scale with their perceptions of party positions on the scale, the result describes the broad lines of political competition in a party system. We can see this for the examples of the United States and France, shown in Figure 3. The columns in the top chart display the distribution of Americans along the Left-Right scale in 2012. Consistent with other studies, there is a bulge of individuals located near the center of the dimension, with more people to the Right than to the Left. The arrows point to where the public locates the two political parties and the median position of all respondents.4 The median American was closer to the Republican Party in this election. The Republicans did win a majority in the House, but buoyed by Barack Obama’s coattails, the Democrats continued to hold a majority in the Senate.

Left-Right Orientations and Voting BehaviorClick to view larger

Figure 3. Distribution of Voters and Party Positions in the United States and France

Source: Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, U.S. 2012 Election and French 2012 Election.

American electoral politics seem simple compared to the multiparty parliamentary systems in most other democracies. The lower chart in Figure 3 displays Left-Right positions in the 2012 French parliamentary elections. In contrast to the United States, the columns show that the French public leans toward the Left. The other contrast is the diversity of parties that compete in the election. The chart shows the location of seven French parties that span a wider range of the ideological spectrum than the two U.S. parties. For example, the Left Front is a coalition of former communists and ultraleftists, and the French public sees them as occupying the extreme Left. The more moderate Socialist Party won a plurality of the vote, and the Socialist leader in parliament became Prime Minister. The Union for a Popular Movement (UPM) was the largest vote-getter on the right, followed by the extreme right National Front. An explicitly green party is also represented in the National Assembly.

These two charts illustrate the logic of the Downsian spatial model of voting. Citizens have their own political views, which position them along the Left-Right scale. Then they locate the party (or parties) that are closest to their position. The spatial model predicts that most people will support the party closest to their own position unless other non-ideological factors come into play. Thus, this simple spatial map provides a clear model of party competition in elections that can be applied to other elections and other democracies.

Accuracy of Citizens’ Party Perceptions

The finding that most people can attribute a Left-Right position to themselves and to the major parties has led researchers to ask the inevitable question: To what extent can we really consider public perceptions as an accurate assessment of the parties’ political positions? Various studies do uncover anomalies in public images of the parties, and a significant minority of people are unsure where to place the parties (Best & McDonald, 2011). Further, individual voters differ in where they place parties, often by a wide range.

Party research has developed three other methods to estimate party Left-Right positions, and these can be used to validate the positions given by the general public. They are discussed in the following subsections.

Party Manifestos

The Comparative Manifestos Project (CMP) has systematically coded the issue content of party manifestos over the past several decades for a large set of established and new democracies (Budge, Klingemann, Volkens, Bara, & Tanenbaum, 2001; Klingemann, Volkens, Bara, Budge, & McDonald, 2006). The CMP combined measures of issue salience to score each party’s Left-Right position. This measure has the advantage that it is based on the parties’ official program for each election, and there is an extensive time series for many party systems.

Expert Evaluations

An alternative method asks academic experts in each nation to position the parties along a Left-Right scale (and often other policy dimensions). This methodology has gradually expanded to a large set of nations and a wider range of policy issues (Benoit & Laver, 2006; Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2012). The experts summarize the totality of the parties’ position, including manifestos, as well as the content of campaigns and the policy activities of the parties. Moreover, this methodology allows the meaning of Left-Right to shift with the issue positions of the parties. At one time, the economy may predominate, but the next election may revolve around social or other non-economic matters.

Elite Positions

The third option asks party elites to position themselves (or their party). As representatives of the party, one can make a strong claim that elite positions define the party identity. The collective views of the party elites can be treated as synonymous with the party as presented to the voters. Indeed, elite studies have been central to many previous studies of political representation (see Bernhard Wessels’s ORE article “Political Representation and Electoral Systems”), and several recent research projects have collected such data on a cross-national basis (Freire, Lisi, Ioannis, & Viegas, 2016; Deschouwer & Depauw, 2014).5

In comparing these measures of party positions, a striking finding emerges (Dalton & McAllister, 2015). Despite elitist criticisms of citizens’ political sophistication, the public’s Left-Right placement of parties is virtually identical to the evidence from party experts or the party elites themselves. In short, PhDs on average are about as accurate as voters in determining party locations. This implies that citizens and political experts see a common Left-Right space, in which parties compete for people’s votes.

Left-Right Attitudes and Voting

The previous discussion provides a framework for understanding how Left-Right attitudes can guide voting choice, especially when many parties compete or new parties enter the system. Voters can use Left-Right as a cue to identify which party or parties broadly share their political preferences, and then vote for the closest party or a relatively close party. This is the Downsian spatial model at work.

Indeed, electoral research regularly shows a strong relationship between citizens’ Left-Right orientations and voting intentions in single-nation studies or cross-national research of established democracies (van der Eijk, Schmitt, & Binder, 2005; Kroh, 2009; Dalton, 2011). The existence of a strong relationship is not at question.

Figure 4 illustrates the relationship between individuals’ Left-Right positions and their willingness to vote for a leftist party, combining evidence from three dozen democracies in the CSES.6 Left-Right attitudes are strongly related to party choice, as shown by the line in the figure. Of people with a leftist self-placement (e.g., 2.0 on the Left-Right scale), 73% report voting for a leftist party in the election. By contrast, among rightist voters (i.e., 8.0 on the scale), only 8% voted for a leftist party. When elections are often decided by a few percentage points, the impact of Left-Right attitudes is quite striking. Consequently, Left-Right attitudes routinely are one of the strongest correlates of party choice, second only to the party identification of voters.

Left-Right Orientations and Voting BehaviorClick to view larger

Figure 4. Individuals’ Left-Right Positions and Vote for the Leftist Party.

Source: CSES Module II.

Note: The figure presents the mean Left-Right vote in legislative elections by the survey respondents’ Left-Right self-placement.

Furthermore, this relationship presumably underestimates the actual influence of Left-Right attitudes on voting choice. People may reasonably differ from the average Left-Right placement of parties because of their different issue interests, which would lessen the relationship based on average voter positions of the parties. For instance, the British Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have different positions if one defines Left-Right primarily in terms of traditional social services issues as opposed to environmental policy. Factoring in individuals’ own Left-Right locations of parties substantially increases the voting correlation (Best & McDonald, 2011). Moreover, voters in multiparty systems typically have more than one party that is close to their own position, so they can choose between several relatively compatible parties based on secondary factors, such as party experience, leadership, and the capacity to govern. Thus, the degree to which voters translate their political views into appropriate party choices is probably stronger than the correlations of Left-Right voting shown in the figure.

We should also recognize that there are wide variations in the strength of this relationship across nations. The magnitude of these differences is seen in Figure 5. Left-Right orientations have relatively little impact on party choices in the Philippines, Mexico, or Taiwan because political parties in these countries often do not appeal to voters’ issue preferences. In contrast, the strongest correlation tends to be in nations with a large number of diverse parties so that voters have more choices for their vote.

Left-Right Orientations and Voting BehaviorClick to view larger

Figure 5. The Correlation of Left-Right Attitudes and Vote

Source: Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, module II (N=36).

Note: The figure displays the relationship between respondent’s Left-Right self-placement and their legislative vote choice (Pearson’s r correlation).

Several studies have examined these national differences in some detail (van der Eijk, Schmitt, & Binder 2005; Lachat, 2008; Freire, 2008; Dalton, 2011). Characteristics of the party system clearly influence the strength of Left-Right voting. For example, party systems with a wide range of choices across the Left-Right continuum—such as Italy, Spain, Hungary, and the Czech Republic--have higher levels of Left-Right voting. In the Anglo-American democracies with more centrist party systems, Left-Right voting is modest. In addition, Left-Right voting is stronger in systems where citizens directly vote for parties on the ballot rather than candidates. In short, the clarity of party choice substantially improves voters’ ability to cast a policy-based vote derived from their Left-Right position.

Left-Right orientations are also more likely to influence voting in established democracies and nations with stable party systems (Dalton, Farrell, & McAllister, 2011; Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2012). These societies have more sophisticated electorates who are more likely to vote on the issues and see clear party choices to represent their views. Apart from possessing less political sophisticated electorates, the party systems in new democracies are also more fluid and the parties are more changeable. As a consequence, it is harder for voters in new democracies to determine the Left-Right positions of the parties. For example, several studies found a lower level of Left-Right voting in central European new democracies (Markowski, 1997; van der Brug, Franklin, & Toka, 2008). In short, a nation’s history of democratic elections may affect the level of Left-Right voting.

Electoral systems research often stresses the importance of political institutions in influencing voting choices, but the electoral rules and institutions have only limited impact on the strength of Left-Right voting. For instance, Left-Right voting is only slightly stronger in proportional representation systems. In contrast to common expectations in the electoral studies literature, the number of electoral parties is essentially unrelated to the strength of Left-Right voting. It is the ideological differences among parties that affect Left-Right voting, not the simple number of parties. Specifically, the more polarized a party system is (at least as perceived by voters), the higher the level of Left-Right voting (Dalton, 2011; Lachat, 2008).

These results may seem unsurprising and inevitable: Left-Right orientations are strongly related to party choice in most nations. Compared to most social demographic predictors and many other predictors of the vote (such as class, religion, or other characteristics), Left-Right orientations are routinely a much stronger predictor of vote choice—as we would expect if they represent the policy concerns of voters. However, for those critics who doubt the meaningfulness of citizens’ Left-Right orientations or the public’s understanding of the party choices available to them, the strength of this relationship demonstrates that most voters make reasonable choices based on their political preferences. In addition, with clearer electoral choices, voters can translate their Left-Right orientations more effectively into a party preference. If democracy is about voters making political choices, then the party system that offers meaningful choices to voters is most likely to produce strong policy voting.

Future Research Issues

One aspect of future research involves sorting out cause and effect in utilizing the Left-Right scale. The strong relationship between individuals’ Left-Right orientation and their vote choice raises the question of whether Left-Right causes party preferences, or vice versa. For example, Inglehart and Klingemann’s (1976) seminal study posited that partisanship strongly influences Left-Right orientations, and that this effect outweighs the importance of issue- or value-based preferences.

The question of causality is important. People who pay only limited attention to politics would likely find it easier to identify with concrete parties, candidates, or both than abstract notions of “Left” and “Right.” Their identification with the former may affect their understanding of the latter. Scholars have long noted that some voters adopt the issue stances of their favored parties as their own (Brody & Page, 1972). A similar logic can operate with respect to Left-Right orientations: people may choose a left-of-center position when asked to place themselves on the spectrum because they support a center-left party. Note that this effect can also work in reverse, with voters shunning a left-of-center placement if they dislike a center-left party.

In addition, if Left-Right simply is another term for party preferences, this would render comparative studies difficult due to unique party systems in each country. It provides a common metric for cross-national comparisons of party positions and voter choices. Further longitudinal panel studies would allow us to disentangle the relationships between partisanship, ideology, and issue positions.

Declining party attachments and party membership in many established democracies, as well as the lack of deep societal roots of many parties in new democracies, also suggest that partisanship may have a decreasing importance in shaping Left-Right orientations than it has in previous decades. A more highly educated electorate, with more independent voters, would probably make issue and value preferences more salient in determining self-placement along the Left-Right scale. Whether this explanation prevails is a question for future studies. The answer may depend in part on the changing content of what Left and Right stand for, which is discussed next.

Another continuing research question involves the content of these spatial labels. Left-Right semantics traditionally stressed economic and class themes (see Oddbjørn Knutsen’s ORE article “Social Structure and Voting Choice”), with leftists advocating a greater state role in the economy and welfare to promote equality, and rightists favoring smaller government and market competition in the name of ensuring freedom. These commonalities across the party systems of different countries suggest that Left-Right orientations are not simply derived from partisanship.

The emergence of postmaterialist issues as societies modernized raised questions about the continued usefulness of the economics-focused spatial scale (Inglehart, 1990). Subsequent research discussed whether the Left-Right schema persisted, became irrelevant, or saw its meaning transformed or supplemented by new issues such as conflicts over globalization, quality of life issues, conflicts over gender, or immigration (Kitschelt & Hellemans, 1990; Kriesi et al., 2006). Hooghe, Marks, and Wilson (2002), for example, identified a dimension of competition pitting citizens with green-alternative-libertarian (GAL) values against those with traditional-authoritarian-nationalist (TAN) views. They argue that these issues form a separate dimension from the conventional Left and Right. The changing content of Left and Right in the established democracies, as well as varied interpretations by different societal groups, will be a continuing research theme.

We also noted that the specific issues associated with Left and Right vary in different contexts. In some countries where the transition from authoritarian rule is within citizens’ living memory, either Left or Right may be linked with the former regime, while the opposite pole is associated with forces advocating democratization (e.g., Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2009). For example, the Left-leaning proclivity observed in several southern European nations may be a reaction to their history of right-wing dictatorships. The opposite holds true in many postcommunist countries, where the Left-Right position is strongly correlated with evaluation of the old regime. Furthermore, the alignment between “new politics” issues and the Left-Right position in established Western democracies is also reversed, with parties ranged along a left-authoritarian to right-libertarian axis (Kitschelt et al., 1999). Other studies highlight differences in how Left and Right are understood in Western and non-Western countries (Freire & Kivistik, 2013).

Finally, an increasing number of cross-national studies are using the Left-Right framework to study the representation process across democracies (Klingemann et al., 2006; Powell, 2010; Dalton, Farrell, & McAllister, 2011; Budge, McDonald, Pennings, & Keman, 2012; Thomassen, 2014). By combining Left-Right positions from citizens, parties, and governments, scholars can begin to map the process of political representation and the efficiency of this process. Without the common metric of Left-Right, such comparisons across political actors and across nations would be difficult to make—and the reward for such comparisons is to understand what makes democracy work.

We acknowledge that even the “universal solvent” of the Left-Right orientation has its limits. Questions of regional autonomy or independence, for example, are less likely to fit on a spatial scale, and one can find regionalist parties staking a position on both sides of the spectrum. The same often applies to ethnic conflicts. Nevertheless, as an overarching theoretical paradigm empirically confirmed, to be capable of both summarizing the most salient political issues of the day and absorbing new ones, Left-Right orientation continues to possess analytical utility today. Whether it still has the capacity to incorporate newly emerging issues in the future, and whether the same spatial labels will represent similar stances across different parts of the world, we call for continued scholarly attention and investigation.


This article examined the role of Left-Right attitudes as an influence on voting choice. Contrary to some skeptics, an overwhelming majority of the public can locate themselves on the Left-Right dimension in most nations. The commonness of these orientations, even in new democracies, illustrates their value to citizens. For instance, in the relatively new democracies of Albania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Hungary, more than 90% of the public express a Left-Right self-location in the CSES surveys. Left-Right orientations are common both in systems with few parties and in those with many parties. We suspect that the use of these terms in elite discourse affects the commonness of Left-Right self-locations in a nation. However, the cross-national breadth of these opinions suggests that Left-Right is a common terminology in the political landscape of most democracies.

That people can express a Left-Right position still leaves open the question of whether these are meaningful responses or the ephemeral reply to a survey interviewer. Certainly, many people lack the deep philosophical understanding of liberalism and conservatism—political scientists continue to debate this point. However, we maintain that these Left-Right positions represent a meaningful summary of where individuals stand on the issues of concern to them and the nation. The Left-Right dimension is a framework that citizens and elites use to summarize their overall political orientations.

The content of Left and Right varies over time, space, and individuals, but these are not superficial responses. Economic and cultural attitudes are often strongly related to Left-Right orientations, especially in established democracies with institutionalized party systems. Individual national surveys with a larger and more nation-specific set of issues typically find strong relationships between Left-Right attitudes and a variety of issue positions. Still, the Left-Right scale simplifies the public’s total policy concerns for the sake of cross-national parsimony. In addition, the single most important reference point appears to be party attachments, as party identities and Left-Right orientations naturally overlap. However, Left-Right attitudes are not simply partisanship by another name—these concepts overlap, but are not equivalent.

In summary, if we use Left-Right orientation as our measure, then we believe that most electoral systems fulfill the initial requirement of meaningful electoral linkage—that is, most people have meaningful political preferences. These opinions may vary in their clarity and content across individuals, but they exist for most citizens. Citizens typically see distinct Left-Right choices between the parties competing in elections. Furthermore, these perceptions are an important guide when voters make their party choices. This Left-Right linkage brings together like-minded voters and party elites to encourage policy representation in the democratic process.


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(1.) Nevertheless, many electoral researchers question whether ordinary people understand and utilize abstract political concepts like Left and Right. See Converse (1964) and Fuchs and Klingemann (1989).

(2.) The CSES is an international collaboration among national election study projects. It asks a common battery of questions on nationally representative public opinion surveys. For more information on the project, see

(3.) Some analysts claim that the center point is another way to express the lack of a Left-Right identity by selecting a position that is neither Left nor Right. This might be the case for some individuals, such as those who do not vote or follow politics. However, we expect that most of these individuals are as they say: centrists who hold a moderate position between Left and Right. Also see Figure 3.

(4.) This figure uses the median scores derived from where the total sample in each nation located themselves and the respective parties on the Left-Right scale.

(5.) For example, the PartiRep team surveyed members of Parliament in 15 countries ( and the Comparative Candidate Survey, surveyed candidates in European national elections (

(6.) We used the public’s Left-Right scores for each party to order parties along the Left-Right dimension, and then we coded parties as Left, Center, or Right based on these scores.