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Timely Decisions: The Effects of Past National Elections on Party Policy Change

Political parties in established democracies face a trade-off between changing their policy positions in pursuit of votes and adhering to their previous positions in order to reduce risks related to change. To reconcile this trade-off, parties seek information about public opinion. Past election performance is one such source of information. To date however, there is no consistent result on whether past elections affect party positioning. I highlight two factors that previous analysts have not considered: whether past election results affect the magnitude of parties’ policy shifts in the current election, and how the time elapsed since the last election moderates the relationship between past election results and party policy change. My analyses of 23 established democracies generate two conclusions with important implications for understanding party behavior and political representation: parties tend to shift their policies more when they have lost votes in the previous election than when they have gained votes; and the effect of past election results dissipates with the passage of time.