How COVID-19 affected the Catalan regional elections

Analysis by Iván Auciello Estévez ’21 and Pau Jovell Codina ’21 (Economics)

Editor’s note: this article was originaly published in the popular economics blog, Nada es Gratis (in Spanish).

In the Catalan elections held on 14 February 2021, just a few weeks after the peak of the third wave of COVID-19, voter turnout was significantly lower than in 2017 (51.3% compared to 79.1%) and the lowest in history. Despite the political context being different compared to 2017, in the run-up to the election predicted turnout remained at similar levels until the emergence of Covid-19 – whereupon it dropped sharply. In these extraordinary elections, the vote share of the parties changed which shifted the Catalan political spectrum.

We study this relationship between Covid-19 and electoral results in Catalonia. To estimate the effect of the pandemic we explore the differences in cumulative Covid-19 incidence at the municipal level and compare it with electoral outcomes controlling for economic and demographic variables (population density, percentage of over-65 years old, share of foreign population and the unemployment rate).

The most widely used model of electoral participation, that of Riker and Ordeshook (1968), considers that the decision to participate is based on a cost-benefit trade-off between the expressed benefit of voting (feeling fulfilled, considering that civic duty is fulfilled, etc.) and the cost that individuals associate with participation. This cost rose sharply, because voting implied a higher risk of contracting the disease and the inconvenience caused by anti-covid measures. Therefore, higher costs would imply lower turnout as shown by several empirical studies, which find that with small increases in cost turnout drops significantly (eg. Aldrich, 1993). We assume that the increase in cost is the same for all (although there could be differences by age, and so we control for the most vulnerable group, the over-65s), which would imply a fall in participation, but could also induce changes in the outcome. This change may be due to differences in the “sentimental” benefit of voting between voters of different parties.

Economic theory also indicates who voters choose, conditional on voting. According to “retrospective” voting theory, voters support or punish parties in government in response to their performance in a crisis such as Key (1966). In contrast, according to “prospective” voting theory, the individual votes for the party that he believes will do better or, as Leininger and Schaub (2020) argue, seeks to match the party in regional and national government for more optimal crisis management.

Effect on participation

As seen in the maps above, the areas with the highest cumulative Covid incidence also have a lower percentage of participation, especially the Barcelona metropolitan area. Our analysis shows that an increase of 100 points in cumulative incidence in the last 14 days is related to a drop of 2.6 percentage points in turnout. To understand the magnitude, this is equivalent to one extra Covid case in a municipality of 1,000 inhabitants, so we estimate that the effect of the pandemic is quite high. To understand the impact of the second and third waves of Covid-19, we have conducted the analysis with cumulative incidence measures in the last month and in the last 4 months prior to the elections. However, as the period lengthens, the effect on turnout decreases (1.3 and 0.4 percentage points respectively).

However, the political context also changed: while in 2017 the voting framework was centred on the independence process (which led to the historical record turnout); in 2021 it was the pandemic that defined the elections. However, the trigger for this change of context (and the neglect of the independence process) was the eruption of the virus. As can be seen in the graph below showing the predicted turnout for the elections to the Parliament of Catalonia. Since Covid-19 appears to be the only element of exogenous variation between municipalities when comparing the 2017 and 2021 elections, we can infer causality.

These results are in line with the theory of the myopic voter who takes into account episodes closer to the election when voting. In this case, the myopic voter is acting rationally, as they account for the actual risk at the time of the vote rather than the risk of the past few months.

Effect on results

Secondly, the elections brought a major shift in the political spectrum, as can be seen in the bar charts above. For this reason, we have not been able to include other elections, as they were not comparable with each other. We have grouped the political parties into the following ideological and identity groups:

  • Pro-independence left: ERC and CUP.
  • Pro-independence right-wing: JUNTSXCAT and PDECAT
  • Non-independence left-wing: PSC and PODEMOS
  • Non-independence right: PP, Cs, and VOX

First, we respectively analyse the pro-independence and non-independence groups, the victors (the pro-independence coalition), and the opposition. The results show that the pandemic has a positive effect on the percentage of the vote of the pro-independence parties and a negative effect on the non-independence group. This effect can be seen as a retrospective vote, showing a certain approval by pro-independence voters of how the regional government has handled the pandemic.

On the other hand, in the analysis of the groups divided into identity and ideological groups, we find that the group with the highest positive coefficient is the non-independence left – the coalition in charge of the central government at the time of the elections. This behaviour is associated with the prospective vote. With the arrival of Salvador Illa (The Spanish Minister of Health during the pandemic) as the PSC candidate, the party was reinforced and ends up as the winner of the elections. This positive effect can be seen as an attempt to align the post-pandemic recovery strategy in Catalonia with that of the rest of Spain.

In conclusion, our results suggest that COVID-19 had a significant outcome in the Catalan elections that translated into a negative relationship between the virus and turnout. In contrast, the relationship is positive between cumulative incidence and the vote of pro-independence parties and the non-independence left-wing group. At the same time, the retrospective theory seems to hold true as there has been strong support for the government in office based on their management of the pandemic.

Connect with the authors

Iván Auciello Estévez ’21 is a student in the Barcelona GSE Master’s in Economics. After graduating he plans to work as a Research Assistant at Banco de España.

Pau Jovell Codina ’21 is a student in the Barcelona GSE Master’s in Economics. After graduating he plans to work as a Research Assistant at Banco de España.

This post was edited by Ashok Manandhar ’21 (Economics).

The rise of Voting Advice Applications – aquienvoto.org and the Spanish case

With over 700,000 users, data from the app aquienvoto.org suggests how VAAs could represent a whole new way of surveying the general public before an election and collecting data on the political position of the population.

photo

With over 700,000 users, data from the app aquienvoto.org suggests how VAAs could represent a whole new way of surveying the general public before an election and collecting data on the political position of the population.

The creator of the app is BGSE alum Hugo Ferradáns ’15, graduate from the Economics of Public Policy Program. Follow him on Twitter @Hferradans.


The rise of the internet era opened a door for innovative ways to help voters be informed about their political choices prior to casting their ballot. During the past 2015 Spanish General Election, new tools such as aquienvoto.org (whodoivote.org in English), an app that matches users’ policy preferences with parties’ proposed policies, became an easy and straightforward alternative for users to explore their political position and compare it to that of the biggest parties. Its success, with over 800,000 users and more than 30 million responses, suggests how technology and the social sciences can work successfully together to create a more informed and accountable electorate, especially in a multiparty political system such as the Spanish one.

But encouraging are more informed electorate is not the only benefit of Voting Advice Applications. In fact, the large amount of data that is generated from online applications such as aquienvoto.org can be a source of analysis and study regarding why people make their choices1, as well as a way to estimate what users care most about in a real-time basis before an election. This article, thus, will try to shed light on the usefulness of Voting Advice Applications to gather data on the political positioning of users. I will show some of the results that were acquired from aquienvoto.org, both on the policy preferences of users and on their most politically-aligned parties.

But first things first- What is exactly aquienvoto.org?

Aquienvoto.org is what is called in the field of political economy research a “Voting Advice Application” (VAA). VAAs are essentially an online test that matches users to parties depending on individual responses to policy-related statements. The user can either disagree or agree with the statements, as well as indicate whether that specific policy is important to him or her. After replying to several questions, the VAA gives the user a summary of what parties the user disagrees and agrees most with, mainly in the form of a ranking or a political map.

chart

Even though there some VAAs more sophisticated than others2, all VAAs acquire essentially the same data:

  1. the position of the user regarding a specific question (in a scale of completely agree to completely disagree with the statement in question),
  2. whether that user gives importance to that question and
  3. after answering all questions, the ranking of most preferred parties for each user.

Aquienvoto.org was able to gather information on 756,908 people, after dropping all users that did not complete at least level 1 (that is, replied to 31 questions).

What did users get as an advice from aquienvoto.org?

If we look at what party was the most first-ranked among users, we see that the centre-right Ciudadanos was the most preferred party throughout the whole period for roughly 33% of users. However, interestingly enough, the overall amount of people that voted for parties that are more leaned towards the left (Podemos,PSOE, United Left and Nós, representing 62.8% of votes)  is much higher than those in line with liberal and conservative policies (Ciudadanos, PP, PNV and DiL, being 37.2% of users’ first choices), indicating that users from aquienvoto.org are consistently left-wing.

ferradans_results

It is particularly noticeable the different layout that the results present when compared to the results from General Elections. For example, the conservative Partido Popular, which was ranked first in the elections with roughly 25% of votes, appeared last almost throughout the whole period for aquienvoto.org. It is clear that this might certainly come from the fact that VAA users are consistently younger and more left-wing than the average citizen, but it also poses a question that would be interesting to explore: do people vote in line with their policy preferences or are there other factors that are influencing voters’ decisions in the field of electoral politics?

How do people position themselves about certain issues and what they think are most important?

Unsurprisingly, the topics related to corruption were the ones users gave most importance to, with almost 10.67% of respondents (that is, 80,410 individuals) giving importance to the question “Politicians accused of corruption should resign and be illegitimated to run for office”, of which almost 93% of people responded that they agree or completely agree with the statement.

The second and third place of most-given-importance questions are related to the presence of religion in the political sphere (second place) and the presence of religion in the education curriculum (third place), for which both find a strong rejection towards religion.  Furthermore, social policy is an area of much importance to individuals as well, surely very much related to Spain’s current economic woes. Indeed, Spanish law related to mass evictions over the past years3 takes fourth place in most-given importance question (8.06% of total questions replied), followed by a statement on the education budget (7,46%), for which most people agree that increasing the budget is a top priority within government policy. These results are roughly constant throughout time, although the amount of users that gave importance to questions declined (graph 2).

ferradans_important

In terms of the most controversial topics out of all questions, where there are large amounts of people agreeing and disagreeing with the statement, we find the prohibition of bullfighting, the abolition of escuelas concertadas4 and the law regarding underage abortion5, having all of them a rather high rate of importance-responses as well.

Regarding what users are not interested on, that is, the questions that were least given importance to, it is seen that the four topics that are least important to users (starting from the least important) are the deficit and the ceiling of government expenditure, the legalization of prostitution, the regulation the financial sector, and the financing of the Autonomous Communities (the different regions of Spain).

What is the political position of the average user?

In order to give users the most interactive experience when analyzing their results, we created a map of their political position using eight different axis, as the Swiss VAA smartvote6 did. Using an algorithm, each response that a user gives contributes to create its “political map”, which can be later compared to the political map of the parties. Thus, using the responses from each user, we computed the political map for the average user, creating the image below.

ferradans_averageuser

As it can be seen, the average user is very much in favor of strong democratic institutions that condemn corruption at all levels, as it presents a rather high value for the axis related to democratic regeneration. Furthermore, it also presents a high value for welfare state and liberal society, and quite a low value for those questions supporting a liberal economy and a restrictive fiscal policy, which goes in line with the results mentioned above that users are more prone to identify themselves with left-wing policies.

Also, it can be seen that the average user rejects all statements related to regional nationalism, and favors those regarding state centralization. This changes, however, when comparing the average users from different regions, as people from Autonomous Communities such as Catalonia and the Basque Country strongly reject state centralization and favor regional nationalist policies.

What is left to be done from VAAs like aquienvoto.org?

Although VAAs can give academics a rich database, there are a number of methodological challenges that need to be overcome7, mainly regarding the representativeness of the sample. Indeed, if we want to make inferences on the positioning of the whole Spanish population, it is crucial that we acquire good quality data on the characteristics of users; something that has been proved difficult for online surveys. From aquienvoto.org, we are working to improve the process of data collection, providing users with the option to sign into an account where they can store their information and reply to surveys at any time. Nevertheless, we believe that more attention from Universities and governments should be given to these tools so that institutions and VAA organizations collectively work to make VAAs a better tool both for users and for the academia. Hopefully, that is what will happen in the next years to come.

For more information on the effect of VAAs on voting behavior, please check my article on Politikon

For inquiries on aquienvoto.org, please send an email to contacto@aquienvoto.org


  1. El auge de las aplicaciones de orientación del voto y su efecto en el comportamiento electoral, Politikon, June 2016.
  2. A review of the top Voter Advice Applications for the 2015 General Election, LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, April 2015.
  3. “If a citizen cannot pay his/her mortgage, giving the house to the bank should cancel his/her debt”
  4. An “escuela concertada” is a semi-private school that receives money from the government and at the same time charges fees to each student. It is unique to Spain.
  5. Whether underage girls should have permission from their parents by law to be able to have an abortion.
  6. https://www.smartvote.ch/
  7. Pianzola (2014), Selection biases in Voting Advice Application research.

Spotlight on Faculty Research: Profs. Alessandra Bonfiglioli and Gino Gancia

Gino Gancia

Alessandra Bonfiglioli

 

Alessandra Bonfiglioli (PhD, Stockholm) and Gino Gancia (PhD, Stockhold) are both Barcelona GSE Affiliated Professors. Last year, they jointly published an article titled “Uncertainty, Electoral Incentives and Political Myopia” in the Economic Journal.

IS THIS THE RIGHT TIME TO ADOPT POLICIES FOR THE LONG TERM?

In this recent article, Alessandra Bonfiglioli (UPF) and Gino Gancia (CREI) argue that periods of high economic uncertainty like the current one are particularly favorable for the adoption of long-term policies, such as fiscal stabilizations and other structural reforms. The reason is that high uncertainty implies that economic performance and electoral outcomes depend more on luck and less on policy choices. This makes politicians less reluctant to adopt policies with current costs but future benefits. Continue reading “Spotlight on Faculty Research: Profs. Alessandra Bonfiglioli and Gino Gancia”

A Wave of Changes (of more or lesser importance)

Another one bites the dust. Could it be much more than a lost election for the Republicans?

Every lost election sets off a wave of debates, blaming and eventually new strategy-setting. This wave is now hitting the Republican Party – and hard. How much in its path will be wiped off and the extent of the ensuing change is still uncertain but potentially big.

If they are driven to change, it is, to most accounts, because the American electorate has a new face. The Latino and Afro-American communities who usually do not make use of their electoral rights have in bigger shares wielded their power and gone to the polls. The Republican’s inability to relate and appeal to these minorities is thus by now commonly identified as the reason for their loss.

As said, this could have far-reaching impacts; the first one being the opportunity for professors to update that Political Economy problem set they have been handing out for years. These elections mark indeed the era of a new Median Voter Theorem case study. If analysts are right, what we are observing in the United States is indeed nothing else than a shift of the electorate. Naturally, this accounts for a shift of the Median Voter.  Our theorem tells us to expect the political actors to accordingly change their ideology and adopt that of the new median voter. And this is what we see unraveling – and at an amazing pace.

Continue reading “A Wave of Changes (of more or lesser importance)”