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Does Government Support Respond to Governments’ Social Welfare Rhetoric or their Spending? An Analysis of Government Support in Britain, Spain and the United States

  • Luca Bernardi and James Adams

Abstract

Issue ownership theory posits that when social welfare is electorally salient, left-wing parties gain public support by rhetorically emphasizing social welfare issues. There is less research, however, on whether left-wing governing parties benefit from increasing social welfare spending. That is, it is not known whether leftist governments gain from acting on the issues they rhetorically emphasize. This article presents arguments that voters will not react to governments’ social welfare rhetoric, and reviews the conflicting arguments about how government support responds to social welfare spending. It then reports time-series, cross-sectional analyses of data on government support, governments’ social welfare rhetoric and social welfare spending from Britain, Spain and the United States, that support the prediction that government rhetoric has no effects. The article estimates, however, that increased social welfare spending sharply depresses support for both left- and right-wing governments. These findings highlight a strategic dilemma for left-wing governments, which lose public support when they act on their social welfare rhetoric by increasing welfare spending.

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School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester (email: lb350@le.ac.uk); Department of Political Science, University of California, Davis (email: jfadams@ucdavis.edu). The research presented in this article was supported by a Starting Grant of the European Research Council (Grant No. 284277) to the ResponsiveGov Project (http://www.responsivegov.eu/). The authors are grateful for this funding. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Conference in Cardiff, 11–13 September 2015 and at the meeting of the Parties, Participation and Public Opinion research cluster, Department of Politics, University of Leicester, 11 November 2015. We are thankful for the feedback received from the participants of these events, in particular Laura Morales, Francesco Visconti, Oriol Sabaté, Daniela Vintila, Angeliki Konstantinidou, Rick Whitaker and Shane Martin. We thank Will Jennings for kindly sharing the data on vote intentions in the UK and the three anonymous reviewers for positively welcoming the article and giving great comments that improved the manuscript substantively. Replication data sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at: https://dx.doi.org/doi:10.7910/DVN/JXSIV0 and online appendices are available at https://doi.org/doi:10.1017/S0007123417000199.

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