Kumlin Goerres (2022): Election Campaigns and Welfare State Change: Democratic Linkage and Leadership Under Pressure

This is the author site with additional resources for

Kumlin, Staffan / Goerres, Achim (2022): Election Campaigns and Welfare State Change: Democratic Linkage and Leadership Under Pressure, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The book can be purchased here


and is accessible for subscribers at Oxford Academic (Oxford Scholarship Online previously).



A preprint of the book as PDF is available here. Version 17 January 2023.

Kumlin Goerres Election Campaigns and Welfare State Change Full Manuscript 20230117


Prof Sonja Blum, Bielefeld University, Von Wahlkämpfen und wohlfahrtsstaatlichem Wandel, in: sozialpolitikblog, 09.02.2023, https://difis.org/blog/?blog=49

“Das Buch wendet sich der Zukunftsfähigkeit repräsentativer Demokratie in einer Ära großer wohlfahrtsstaatlicher Herausforderungen zu. Trotz der zum Teil doch recht diversen, mit unterschiedlichen Daten arbeitenden Kapitel zeigt sich der rote Faden. Die Vergleiche von Deutschland, Norwegen und Schweden sind durchweg lesenswert und interessant. Unweigerlich werfen sie Anschlussfragen auf: Welches Bild würde der Vergleich mit vor noch größeren Herausforderungen stehenden Demokratien zeichnen, der Vergleich mit defekten Demokratien? Was würde der Einbezug von z.B. radikal-rechten Parteien verändern? Unterscheidet sich politische Kommunikation auf anderen Plattformen? Im Fazit wäre es interessant gewesen, die Befunde noch einmal in diesen breiteren Kontext eingebettet zu diskutieren. Die notwendigen Grenzen und Schwerpunktsetzungen der hier präsentierten Analysen werden allerdings vorweg diskutiert und laden zu weiteren Studien ein.”

Prof Sara Watson, Ohio State University, in Perspectives on Politics, 2023, 21/4: 1507-1509, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592723002360

“To tie the book’s disparate theoretical findings together, the conclusion offers a thoughtful assessment of the state of representative democracy. Theirs is a measured but somewhat pessimistic take on the health of both democratic linkage and ideational leadership, driven by the inability of parties to convey clear programmatic differences and their penchant for selectively focusing campaigns on popular dimensions of welfare policy.” (1507)

Related publications (as to content or data)

  1. Finseraas, Henning/ Haugsgjerd, Atle & Kumlin, Staffan (2023) Immigration and welfare state sustainability: whose perception is affected by fiscal cost cues?, Journal of European Public Policy, DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2023.2166572
  2. Goerres, Achim/ Karlsen, Rune/ Kumlin, Staffan (2020): What Makes People Worry about the Welfare State? A Three-Country Experiment, British Journal of Political Science, 50/4: 1519-37. Open Access
  3. Goerres, Achim/ Kumlin, Staffan and Karlsen, Rune (2019): Pressure without Pain: What Politicians (Don’t) Say about Welfare State Reform Pressures and Policy Responses, Journal of Social Policy, 48/4: 861-884. Open Access
  4. Goerres, Achim/ Spies, Dennis/ Kumlin, Staffan (2018): The Electoral Supporter Base of the Alternative for Germany, Swiss Political Science Review, 24(3): 246–269. Open Access
  5. Goubin, Silke / Kumlin, Staffan (2022): Political Trust and Policy Demand in Changing Welfare States: Building Normative Support and Easing Reform Acceptance?, European Sociological Review, Volume 38, Issue 4: 590–604, https://doi.org/10.1093/esr/jcab061
  6. Haugsgjerd, Atle/ Kumlin, Staffan (2020) Downbound spiral? Economic grievances, perceived social protection and political distrust, West European Politics, 43:4, 969-990, 10.1080/01402382.2019.1596733 
  7. Jakobsson, Lars Niklas/ Kumlin, Staffan (2017). Election Campaign Agendas, Government Partisanship, and the Welfare State. European Political Science Reviewp. 183–208. doi: 10.1017/S175577391500034X . Full text in Research Archive


There are numerous data sets available for re-usage.

  • Panel surveys in Germany, Norway and Sweden
  • Content analysis of expert descriptions of election campaigns for Europe over several decades
  • collection of speeches of prime ministerial candidates in Germany, Norway and Sweden 2000-2010
  • Statistical data sets of quantitative content analysis of these speeches

Please visit this project site at the Open Science Framework where we deposited the data.


Book Synopsis

For over three decades, mature European welfare states have been on their way into an austerity phase marked by greater needs and more insecure revenues. A number of reform pressures—including population ageing, unemployment, economic globalization, and increased migration—call into question the economic sustainability and normative underpinnings of transfer systems and public services. And while welfare states long seemed resilient to growing challenges, it now seems clear that they are changing. This book examines how political leaders and the public respond to reform pressures at a pivotal moment in a mass democracy: the election campaign. Do campaigns facilitate debate and attention to welfare state challenges? Do political parties present citizens with distinct choices as to how challenges might be met? Do leaders prepare citizens for the idea that some policies may be painful? Do party messages have adaptive consequences for how the public perceives the need for reform? Do citizens adjust their normative support for welfare policies in the process? Overall, the answers to these questions affect how we understand welfare state change and the functioning of representative democracy in an era of mounting challenges. The book builds on an integrated set of data sources collected by the authors. These include information about campaign themes from a large number of countries across three decades, content analysis of party leader speeches from the largest parties in Germany, Norway, and Sweden in the 2000s, as well as experiments and panel survey data from these countries.

Chapter 1: Introduction

The chapter notes how modern welfare states are exposed to fiscal “reform pressures” and are changing in complex ways. It then briefly states the key questions dealt with by the book concerning how political leaders and the public respond to these reform pressures during election campaigns. It also briefly introduces the various data sources. In a next step, the reader learns about democratic linkage and democratic leadership. These concepts structure the various empirical questions and answers. Linkage and leadership are two “visions” for what good political representation is and how it can be achieved. In this book, they function as models for how political parties and citizens could and should communicate. Specifically, democratic linkage is about how electoral democracy provide citizens with opportunities for making a choice over future policy. Democratic leadership is about daring—rather than “blame-avoiding”—politicians who publicly argue that big challenges necessitate unpopular policies. Leadership also requires citizens who on occasion readjust their perceptions and preferences. The chapter goes on to discuss implications of country coverage, time periods, and analyzed political parties. It then tours the empirical chapters, with a focus on the types of questions and data that are addressed in each. The final section foreshadows the main overall conclusions about linkage and leadership that will eventually emerge in the concluding chapter.

Chapter 2: Democratic Linkage and the Party Decline Debate

The democratic linkage model envisages political parties presenting distinct policy platforms, addressing which societal problems that now deserve attention as well as proposing policy solutions. Citizens use this information to develop “informed” perceptions of party differences and informed policy preferences of their own. This allows them to vote for the party offering the best match. After the election, governing parties let the policy “mandates” they asked for in the campaign translate into actual policy. An implication of the linkage model is that campaigns in general, and political parties in particular, have increasingly put reform pressures on the agenda as these have grown more severe and consequential. Moreover, parties have told citizens about which policy solutions are meant to ease growing challenges. Equally important, the the problem/solution packages offered by parties are distinct, thus allowing meaningful democratic choice also in the face of outstanding challenges. Citizens, on their part, have the ability to use the information they receive to form perceptions about reform pressures and—crucially under the linkage model—adjust policy preferences. Chapter 2 draws on a debate over whether parties have lost their ability to provide democratic linkage. We note dramatically different views on the extent of “party decline” in this regard. The book makes concrete contributions to this debate, including analyses of (1) how “systematically salient” welfare state issues and pressures are, (2) the extent and nature of party differences communicated to citizens concerning reform pressures and policy solutions, and (3) how exposure to such information affects citizens. 

Chapter 3: Democratic Leadership and the Study of Changing Welfare States

Democratic leadership requires politicians who sometimes dare to publicly argue that big challenges necessitate unpopular policies. This democratic vision also places demands on citizens who, at least in principle and on occasion, are willing and able to listen to such messages. Older welfare state scholarship, however, assigned a limited role to public communication and democratic leadership.  Policymakers were found to engage in “blame avoidance” while citizens have been seen as unable to let go of the status quo. A more recent body of work suggests that leaders and citizens may communicate to a greater and more consequential extent than older theories imply. A number of communication-oriented concepts such as “ideational leadership” have gained currency. The extent, nature, and consequences of this imagined leadership, however, is currently unclear but the book’s empirics address these issues in multiple ways. A particular point made in recent work is that welfare state politics is no longer a unidimensional struggle over destructive retrenchment. Scholars have documented an ideational shift towards a “social investment” and “activation” oriented welfare state. As a result, the menu of policy responses becomes less exclusively destructive—and unpopular—than older theories implied. This generates further questions analysed in the book. Perhaps the social investment turn has permeated public debate to the extent that it masks more unpopular policy in public settings? If so, the social investment/activation paradigm may function as a vehicle for blame avoidance and an obstacle for democratic leadership.

Chapter 4: Up and Down with the Welfare State: Systemic Agenda Shifts in Europe

Older research on the welfare state often promoted a reductionist view of elections, seeing these as instruments for aggregation of exogenous preferences rather than for deliberation and preference change. Thus, we know more about policy “preferences” than about policy “agendas,” i.e. how salient issues are. By contrast, this chapter analyses changes over time in the salience of welfare state issues in election campaigns. The chapter draws on recent work using a “systemic” approach to agenda-setting. We examine if welfare issues become more—or perhaps less—likely to dominate entire election campaigns over time as most welfare states delved deeper into the era of “permanent austerity.” Moreover, have we witnessed a gradual increase in attention (as welfare states have experienced gradually mounting pressure)? Or have we rather seen a “late and brief” attention response? This is implied by theories of “punctuated equilibrium” and “attention cycles”. Moreover, the chapter asks if welfare state debate a “fair-weather sport” that is mainly exercised in the absence of pressures and in contexts where blame can be easily shifted (such as in a massive economic crisis)? A final set of questions concern the “social/investment activation” turn. Have such issues taken over attention from less popular policy responses such as retrenchment?

Chapter 5: What Politicians (Don’t) Tell You about Welfare State Change

This chapter analyses primary data comprising party congress speeches in election years in Germany, Norway, and Sweden. Are reform pressures put on the agenda by leading politicians? Moreover, do politicians dare connect pressures to reforms, and in particular to more unpopular ones? Further, the empirics register whether politicians discuss pressures mainly in terms of economic sustainability (known in the ideational leadership model as “cognitive arguments”), or whether they also appeal to various “normative” arguments. A second set of questions concern actor-, context-, and country-related explanations of variation in party messages. By example, we examine differences between government and opposition, and over time (particularly before and after the financial crisis of 2008). Other analyses look for party differences between left and right: what “choice” are citizens presented with? Are there differences in which pressures are stressed, in which policy solutions are emphasized, or in which normative concepts that are invoked?

Chapter 6: What Makes People Worry about the Welfare State?

This chapter develops the notion of reform pressure framing and studies its effects on perceptions of the financial viability of the welfare state. Pressure framing refers to different ways of emphasizing and presenting information about pressures that challenge welfare state sustainability. The chapter presents a comparative survey experiment fielded in Germany, Norway, and Sweden with respondents randomly provided with varying information types veiled inside a survey question about reform pressures. This experiment allows us to compare the impact of different reform pressures (including population ageing, low employment rates, EU and non-western immigration, and international economic crisis). Moreover, the comparative component gives a handle on country variation, such as whether effects are different in economically exceptional Norway. Finally, the chapter draws on a number of studies showing the importance of how deserving welfare recipients are. The concept of deservingness help us specify with greater precision a plausible “normative” component of successful ideational leadership narratives.

Chapter 7: Who Persuades and Who Responds?

Chapter 7 probes deeper into the notion of pressure framing, drawing on two experiments conducted in Germany and Norway respectively. These experiments introduce three types of realism compared to Chapter 6. First, they increase message complexity. Real-world pressure frames are typically long and involve nuances, vagueness and semantic complexity. Second, real-world pressure frames quite often provide policy cues about how pressure is to be alleviated. Therefore, most treatments in this chapter combine pressure messages with various types of proposed policy solutions (such as retrenchment or social investment). Finally, a third realistic feature is that the treatments clarify which party or parties says that the welfare state is pressured. This allows us to examine which political parties are the most effective proponents of pressure messages (among party sympathizers and as well as other voter groups). Relatedly, Chapter 7 develops and tests the idea that pressure messages with clear party- and policy cues may well trigger “resistance” and “counter-arguing” among groups predisposed against sender and/or content. Resistance implies that effects are weaker or non-existent among those groups. Counter-arguing goes one step further and implies “polarisation effects”—rather than net negative persuasive effects—such that different groups may react in different directions to the same pressure message.

Chapter 8: Do People Adjust Policy Preferences to Reform Pressures?

This chapter uses primary panel data from Germany and Norway to analyse if perceptions of reform pressures change policy preferences over time. Panel data, of course, are often called for in research on welfare attitudes but hard to come by. Such data are valuable here as they give a handle on the direction of causation: are welfare state preferences affected by information and perceptions about reform pressures or do people adjust sustainability perceptions to preferences already held? Panel data are also attractive as they provide insights into the longevity of opinion formation processes involving sustainability perceptions. Panel waves were collected roughly one year apart and thus indicate if sustainability worries matter over longer timespans than can typically be gauged in experimental research. Most importantly, however, Chapter 8 addresses a key knowledge gap in research on the political consequences of welfare state sustainability perceptions. What we know from past research is that such perceptions can be politically important in tempering electoral punishment of governments for unpopular reforms. Less clear, however, is whether perceptions also affect underlying policy demands in a more fundamental sense.