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Comparative Elections Research: International and European

by Hermann Schmitt

This review is about comparative election studies which address, not necessarily exclusively, individual voting behaviour. This invariably involves representative mass surveys. The number of countries with a regular programme of election studies is rapidly expanding, not only in well established democracies, but perhaps even more in the new democracies around the world. While this type of election research is flourishing like never before, comparative studies are rare. There are objective reasons for that. And there are efforts to overcome this situation. These efforts are the focal point of this review.

Three major international research projects are under way and I will briefly describe each of them: the European Election Study (EES), the Comparative National Election Study (CNEP), and the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). These international co-operations are supported by the International Committee for Research into Elections and Representative Democracy (ICORE). I will start by explaining what ICORE is and does and continue with the CSES, the CNEP, and the EES.


ICORE was established at an ECPR Research Session on Electoral Studies held in Rimini in 1989. Members are the directors of established election studies. According to its constitution, the general aims of ICORE are "to promote cross-national research into electoral behaviour and representative democracy, in particular by fostering collaboration between academically directed national programmes of election studies, by increasing contacts between them and their knowledge of each other's research and by creating and sustaining an international data centre."

At its origin is the observation of a remarkable paradox in the field of electoral research. At first sight it seems to be one of the best developed and best integrated subdisciplines in political science. A growing number of countries has an established programme of academically directed election studies based on national probability samples of the electorate. Mainly because of their common intellectual roots - the "Michigan school" - the similarity of most of these studies, both in their theoretical and methodological features, is striking. This similarity suggests a well-developed programme of comparative research. However, such a programme hardly exists. Despite the common intellectual roots of most national election studies, really comparative research is remarkably rare. One of the reasons for this situation is that there is a number of logistical barriers to the use of the various national election studies in cross-national research.

To mention only the most obvious one: for a number of studies written documentation, even the questionnaires, is only available in the original language and not in English, the modern lingua franca.

In order to remove these logistical barriers, ICORE is about to establish an Elections Database consisting of as many national election studies as possible. The initial focus is on European studies. This ambitious task requires the following steps:

(i) the translation of questionnaires and documentation into English where studies are not already available in this language;

(ii) the creation of an electronically searchable database of questions asked in the national election studies;

(iii) the creation of an electronically searchable database of study descriptions;

(iv) the collation of all of the European national election studies in a central archive, e.g. the ZA in Cologne;

(v) the creation of an electronically searchable database of publications emanating from each national election study.

A second step towards further comparative electoral research is, of course, to co-ordinate national election studies in such a way that they are comparative from the very beginning. Simultaneously with the further development of a data-base of already collected data, ICORE supports international collaboration in order to reach a greater comparability of different national election studies.


This international collaboration strives to advance the understanding of enduring and fundamental debates about electoral choice in ways not possible through the secondary analysis of existing data. The goals of CSES are threefold: to illuminate how electoral institutions constrain citizens' beliefs and behaviours that condition the nature and quality of democratic choice as expressed through popular elections; to understand the nature of political and social cleavages and alignments; and to shed light on how citizens, living under diverse political arrangements, evaluate democratic institutions and processes. Nearly two-hundred social scientists from more than fifty consolidated and emerging democracies have joined the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems.

Beginning in 1996, collaborators have been fielding studies on national elections as they occur. Each national election study will include the CSES questionnaire module and questions designed to solicit background information about the respondents. Collaborators will code all these data according to prescribed international standards and will deposit the data in a central archive soon after the election. Simultaneously, teams of researchers will also collect institutional and political data for each country. All the micro- and macro-level data from each polity will be merged into a single, cross-national data set that the archive will distribute to social scientists around the world.

The planning process for CSES began in August 1994 at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, when social scientists from more than 30 democracies gathered at an ICORE-sponsored conference to discuss a research agenda, a study design, and the data that should be gathered within each polity. Collaborators charged an international Planning Committee1 with the task of working out the details regarding the questionnaire module, the background data to be collected, the macro-level data to be gathered; the standards for data quality; and the norms and standards for archiving and distributing the data. The Planning Committee met in Ann Arbor, Michigan in January 1995 and worked out a proposal for each of these tasks.

During the summer of 1995 a number of pilot studies were conducted to test the questionnaire module. The analysis of these pilot study data guided the revisions to the questionnaire module and shaped the final recommendations of the Planning Committee. The final questionnaire module includes measures of identification with and evaluation of the political parties and their leaders; candidate recognition; placement of parties and party leaders on the left-right dimension; evaluations of the performance of the national economy; citizen interaction with representatives; evaluations of the electoral process; and assessments of the responsiveness of representatives, the performance of political parties, and the performance of democracy. Background data are to be collected on voter turnout and vote choice; age; gender; education; marital status; union membership; occupation; income; household composition; religious denomination and practice; language; region; race; and rural/urban residence. A separate questionnaire, to be filled in by national collaborators rather than by cross-section interviewees, collects macro-level data on the constitutional structure of the national government; electoral laws; election results; political parties; and national economic conditions.

Each team of national collaborators is expected to deposit its data and accompanying documentation in a central archive in an appropriate, useable form. Micro- and macro-level data from all polities will be merged into a single, cross-national data set, and the data will be open to the public as quickly as possible.

The questions of the questionnaire module developed for this initial collaboration will be asked in national elections held between 1996 and 1999. But the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems will not come to an end then. Planning for the next round of collaboration has already begun. The second and subsequent rounds may focus on a subset of the themes covered in the first collaboration or on new themes.


The Comparative National Elections Project (CNEP) is another attempt at a genuine comparative study of national elections in various countries. It is concerned with tracing the effects of social and media communications about politics and elections on voter attitudes and behavior. Using a locally adapted standardized core questionnaire, CNEP researchers investigate the family, peer group and secondary organization environments of individual electors through both questions on perceived group political norms and snowball sample interviews. Media environments are also studied in most countries through lengthy question protocols and content analyses of selected media output.

The project's theoretical focus is on the agencies and processes of intermediation between the individual and the distant world of politics, thus reviving the long neglected research perspective developed by the seminal studies of the Columbia school in the 1940s and 1950s. How do citizens, prior to national elections, form and change their political views in response to their intermediation contexts? This is the basic question guiding research.

Three types of intermediaries are of primary interest in the project: interpersonal networks, secondary organizations, and the mass media. A complex study design has been developed in order to study these intermediaries. It is longitudinal on the time axis, covering the whole period of the respective election campaigns, and transcends the traditional type of election studies by surveying voters not as isolated individuals. Instead, it also includes in the analyses the key political discussion partners in their personal environments. Furthermore, extensive content analyses of the mass media's political reporting form part of the project are included.

Planning for this project began in 1988. The original project was set up by teams from Germany2, the United States3, Great Britain4, and Japan5. Three further countries have been added since with major voting studies being conducted in Spain6, Chile and Uruquay.


The elections to the European Parliament are the only elections which transcend national borders. Unlike the other two cross-national comparative studies, an Election Study focusing on electoral behaviour in the European Elections must by necessity be cross-nationally comparative from the very beginning. In contrast to CSES and CNEP, the European Elections Study, like many National Election Studies, is meant to be a continuous enterprise, a sequence of studies with varying foci and designs.

Studying elections to the European Parliament is a relatively young branch of electoral research. The first election of this kind was held in 1979, and a first European Election Study was conducted at that time. Actually, two transnational studies were launched in 1979: a classical election study focusing on political mobilisation and representation - the EES 19797 - and a communication study8 concentrating on the impact of mass media, and of television in particular, on the vote. The former was rather a federation of research projects than a single study: it comprised a campaign study, a candidates survey, surveys among middle-level elites (in operational terms: party conference delegates) of national and transnational parties, and a (pre-electoral) mass survey component carried out by Eurobarometer 11 in spring 1979. Funding, always a highly difficult question in a multi-national study, was provided by the Volkswagen Foundation, the European Parliament and the European Commission.

There was no EES realised in 1984. Five years later, at the occasion of the 1989 European Parliament election, a three-wave voter study was fielded in each of the then twelve EC member countries - the EES 19899. It was realised as "wagons behind the Eurobarometer locomotive" - associated with two regular Eurobarometer surveys (autumn 1988 - EB30 - and spring 1989 - EB31) and one extra Euro-
barometer in the summer of 1989 (following the election - EB31a). Although it contains a large number of the established instruments of electoral research (i.e. party attachment, issue priorities and perceived party competence, left-right location of self and parties, vote probabilities, extended demography), the main aim of the study was to determine the Europeanisation of the vote: can participation and party choice in European Elections be said to be 'European' (in a double sense - determined by EC concerns on the one hand and by the same factors EU-wide on the other). Funding the 1989 European Elections Study was again extremely difficult. Grants obtained from the British ESRC and the French Government paid most of the post-electoral wave, while the pre-electoral waves for the Eastern part were made possible by a consortium of West European mass media.

The European Elections Study 199410 up to this day is the last in the row. Given the recent steps taken with regard to European Unification and EU affairs - most significant among them the SEA, the Single Market project, and the Maastricht treaty creating a political and monetary union - this study concentrates on questions of democratic representation and the legitimacy of EU government. A voter study (post-electoral cross-sections in each member country) and a study of parliamentarians (EP candidates, MEPs and MPs) were conducted in close co-operation.

The core of the 1994 Voters Study is a representative mass survey done in each EU member country during the two weeks following the elections to the European Parliament. Representative national samples comprise some 1,000 interviews (500 carried out in Luxembourg, 300 extra interviews in Northern Ireland). The study was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Nederlandse Stichting for Wetenschapelig Onderzoek, and was carried out as a module included in an extra Eurobarometer survey run by the European Commission.

The questionnaire of the 1994 Voters Study concentrates on the measurement of issue effects on the vote; operationalisations of two alternative conceptions of issue-voting - the position- and valence-issue approach - are included and will allow to test their respective merits and shortcomings. In addition, measures of party identification of self and father, of the probabilities of party choice, of the left-right positioning of self and parties, and of the legitimacy of EU government are included. The standard Eurobarometer instrumentation is also available, which is particularly useful in the domain of socio-political involvement measures, of generalised attitudes towards European integration and the European Union and with regard to the rich demography section of the questionnaire. The Voters Study thus investigates how the electorates perceive the EC policy-making process; what the policy-preferences of the voters are; which political system, according to them, is and which ought to be responsible for policy-making; and which policy-position they consider political parties to have. The answers to those questions allow to determine in what manner, if any, the European concerns of voters affect their voting behaviour; how well EC citizens feel that their policy preferences and more generally their interests, views and hopes are being represented in the system of government of the EC. Attention is also paid to realigning opportunities presented by new and emerging issues; and to the obstacles to realignment inherent in existing party loyalties and traditional socio-political cleavages.

However, the EES'94 is not just a Voters Study. A mail questionnaire was distributed among the candidates to the European Parliament which included, among other questions, instruments that were asked in identical format in the Voters Study. In addition, a face-to-face interview study was conducted among Members of the European Parliament. Finally, a mixed-mode survey study is currently under way among members of national parliaments of the various member countries. Altogether, the EES'94 is one of the few comparative representation studies done so far.

Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the study of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) focuses on the extent to which the present functioning of the parliament is instrumental to the proper representation of European voters. More concrete research questions refer to:

(i) issue positions of MEPs and their perception of issue positions of different constituencies;

(ii) the relative importance of party membership compared to nationality for the position MEPs take on European policy issues;

(iii) the key actors in the personal networks of MEPs: fellow MEPs, (people from) their home constituency, their national party, representatives of interest groups, members of the national parliaments; role orientations of members of parliament: to what extent do role orientations (both focus and style) reflect a European rather than a national frame of reference? Are Members of the European Parliament primarily loyal to their (European) parliamentary group or to their national party?

The study of members of national parliaments is to a great extent the mirror image of the study at the European level. The major question is whether and to what extent members of the national parliaments are inclined to seek a solution for the democratic deficit at the national rather than the European level: are they inclined to reclaim lost territory by a more effective control of the national government in European affairs, or are they inclined to provide a link between the national and European parliaments by way of a "cumul des mandats"? In the latter case it will be more difficult to imagine the development of a separately organised European party system.

The output of this study will consist of books, scholarly articles, and data available for future research. Starting with the latter, the data of the Voters Study were cleaned, thoroughly documented, and are momentarily deposited at various data archives from which they will be available to other scholars for secondary analysis. Due to data protection and for reasons of anonymity, the situation will be somewhat more difficult regarding the data-sets deriving from the elite survey. It is currently the intention of the primary researchers to make an anonymized version of these data available to the scientific community in order to make possible the investigation of many scholarly concerns other than those that specifically motivated the original study. The research team itself, however, is engaged in a major programme of publications on the basis of these data, starting with a series of scholarly articles published in the European Journal of Political Research and elsewhere. Four book-length publications are in preparation, one deriving from each of the three component parts and one volume that builds on the findings of the three components.


1 This Committee consists of Rita Bajarunieni (Lithuania), John Curtice (Great Britain), Juan Díez Nicolás (Spain), Oscar Hernández (Costa Rica), Sören Holmberg (Sweden), Hans-Dieter Klingemann (Germany), Marta Lagos (Chile), Filipe B. Miranda (Philippines), Yoshitaka Nishizawa (Japan), Steven J. Rosenstone (United States), Jacques Thomassen (Netherlands), and Gabor Toka (Hungary). In addition, Gary Cox (University of California, San Diego), Ekkehard Mochmann (Zentralarchiv für empirische Sozialforschung), Richard Rockwell (Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research), Hermann Schmitt (European Election Study), and W. Phillips Shively (Comparative Political Data Board) serve as consultants to the Planning Committee.

2 Max Kaase, Hans-Dieter Klingemann, Manfred Küchler, Franz Urban Pappi, et al.

3 Paul Allen Beck, Russell Dalton, Scott Flanagan, Robert Huckfeldt, Bradley Richardson, et al.

4 John Curtice, Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell, et al.

5 Hiroshi Akuto, et al.

6 Jose Ramon Montero, Richard Gunther et al.

7 The convenor was Karlheinz Reif. Among the participants of EES'79 were Roland Cayrol, Paul Claeys, Ian Gordon, Piero Ignazi, Ronald Inglehart, Isaac Lipschitz, George Mavrogordatos, Nicole Loeb-Mayer, Oskar Niedermayer, Julian Santamaria Ossorio, Gianfranco Pasquino, Jacques René Rabier, Hermann Schmitt, Wijbrandt van Schuur, Carsten Lehman Sørensen, Maria Stock, Paul Whiteley, Colette Ysmal and Giovanna Zincone.

8 The convenor was Jay Blumler. Among the participants were Roland Cayrol, Dennis McQuail, Klaus Schoenbach and Winfried Schulz.

9 Co-ordinated by this author, the members of the core group of researchers included Roland Cayrol, Cees van der Eijk, Mark Franklin, Manfred Kuechler, Renato Mannheimer, Karlheinz Reif and Colette Ysmal. Pilar del Castillo and Michael Marsh joined at a later stage.

10 Co-ordinated by this author the members of the core group of the voters study include Pilar del Castillo, Roland Cayrol, Cees van der Eijk, Mark Franklin, Renato Mannheimer, Michael Marsh, Karlheinz Reif and Colette Ysmal. Jacques Thomassen is the co-ordinator of the elites study, comprising in addition to him Søren Holmberg, Richard Katz, Pippa Norris and Bernhard Wessels.

Dr. Hermann Schmitt
University of Mannheim
Mannheim Center for Social Research (MZES)
Research Department II
D-68131 Mannheim
Phone: +49-621-292-8403
Fax: +49-621-292-8435

Address until May 1997:

4051 ISR Building, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106-1248, U.S.A.
Phone: +1.313.936.1769
Fax: +1.313.764.5494

Hermann Schmitt is political scientist at the MZES, Research Department II and director of the Centre for European Survey analyses and Studies (ZEUS) at the MZES.

EURODATA Newsletter No.4, p.1-5