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Catch-All or Catch and Release? The Electoral Consequences of Social Democratic Parties' March to the Middle in Western Europe

37 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 1 Sep 2010

Jonathan Polk

University of Georgia

Johannes Karreth

University at Albany, SUNY

Christopher S. Allen

University of Georgia, Department of International Affairs

Date Written: August 2010


This paper addresses the electoral consequences of catch-all parties' shifts to the political center. Although the move to the center of many European Social Democratic parties in the 1990s was first rewarded with victories, these parties have since faced a remarkable electoral drought that is surprisingly carrying through the current "hard times" of the international economic order. What explains the seeming inability of these catch-all parties to cast a wider, but sustainable net for voters? This inability is particularly puzzling given that Social Democratic parties should be well positioned to address the current economic troubles. This development challenges standard explanations that apply variations of the Downesian spatial model. It is necessary to add a temporal dimension to explain when and why the broadening of party platforms fails and produces counterintuitive electoral outcomes. Of particular concern in explaining the outcomes of catch-all strategies are the existence of viable parties to the left of the catch-all party on the left-right continuum and the electoral institutions of a given country. Scholars of European political parties have called into question the adequacy of standard left/right indicators as measures of party competition, suggesting that a multi-dimensional space is necessary to accurately depict contemporary European politics. Without dismissing other factors, we stress the enduring relevance of material-based competition in today's European politics, a competition still well captured by left/right measurements. Our empirical study analyzes the votes of individuals in six European countries in the past three decades in comparison to an individual's distance from Social Democratic catch-all parties' left-right position. The individual level allows us to observe current votes as they relate to previous votes, which is an essential part of our argument, but necessarily omitted from studies using aggregate vote shares. Our findings indicate that current analyses of the electoral effects of strategy shifts are misleading inasmuch as they fail to account for individual-level motivations for vote switching.

Suggested Citation

Polk, Jonathan and Karreth, Johannes and Allen, Christopher S., Catch-All or Catch and Release? The Electoral Consequences of Social Democratic Parties' March to the Middle in Western Europe (August 2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Jonathan Polk

University of Georgia ( email )

Athens, GA 30602-6254
United States

Johannes Karreth (Contact Author)

University at Albany, SUNY ( email )

1400 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12222
United States

Christopher Allen

University of Georgia, Department of International Affairs ( email )

Athens, GA 30602
United States
7065422984 (Phone)


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