How governments pitch a referendum is a big deal. Here’s what we learned in Colombia.

Published on The Monkey Cage (Washington Post) on 10 December 2016 (co-authored with Juan Masullo)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo today, in recognition of his four-year effort to guide peace negotiations with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC.

The October announcement about the prize came just days after Colombians rejected a referendum on the historic peace agreement to end the armed conflict that has plagued the country for half a century. In late November, the two sides pushed through a revised peace deal addressing some of the concerns of those who voted against the referendum. Santos avoided another referendum by getting the senate and the lower house to approve the new pact.

Referendums are tough to push through

The outcomes of referendums — whether in Colombia, or the June Brexit vote or December’s Italian referendum — make it clear that getting people to vote for government initiatives is harder than one would expect.

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A referendum on the Government, not the Constitution

My reaction to the outcome of the Italian referendum published on the LSE Europp Blog

Mr Renzi’s speech on the night of the referendum clearly summarised how he approached the referendum campaign. In the entire speech, he never mentioned his own party, the Democratic Party (PD), while he focused entirely on his own responsibilities. Referring to those who campaigned for a Yes vote, he commented that “you campaigners have not lost, but I have lost”.

The personalisation of the vote has been the distinctive feature of the campaign for Italy’s constitutional reform. From the very beginning, Mr Renzi has linked the fate of his government to the approval of the reform, promising to resign should the proposal be rejected. A promise that he promptly fulfilled, after almost 60% of Italians voted against the reform.

Italian voters seemed to have followed Renzi’s personalisation strategy. Instead of a referendum on the Constitution, the consultation became a clear consultation on the Government, and especially on the Prime Minister. Data in Figure 1 confirm that Yes votes in the referendum are clearly correlated with support for the Democratic Party in the 2014 European election – the only nation-wide election in which Renzi was Prime Minister. The correlation is neat: the higher the support for the Democratic Party, the higher the support for the reform.

Figure 1. Yes votes in the referendum and vote for PD in the 2014 European elections

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Un referendum sul Governo?

Il referendum costituzionale italiano si è concluso con la vittoria del No con quasi il 60% dei voti. Fin dall’inizio della campagna referendaria, il primo ministro Matteo Renzi ha legato strettamente l’esito del voto a quello del Governo, spostando di fatto il significato del referendum da un voto sulla Costituzione a un voto sulla sua persona.

Se mettiamo in relazione i voti per il Sì con i voti per il Partito Democratico alle elezioni europee del 2014 emerge chiaramente come il voto per il referendum sia stato un voto “politico”, anziché un voto nel merito della riforma. Come mostra la Figura 1, le percentuali più alte per il Sì alla riforma si sono registrate nelle regioni dove il PD ha ottenuto più voti nel 2014.

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New survey evidence: Renzi’s support is damaging the chances of a Yes vote in Italy’s referendum

Published on the LSE Europp blog on 18 November 2106

On 4 December, Italians will vote in a referendum on the most far-reaching constitutional reform since the birth of the Italian Republic. From the very beginning, the country’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has linked the fate of his government to approval of the reform, promising to resign should the proposal be rejected. In doing so, he has shifted the meaning of the referendum away from simply constitutional reform, and toward a verdict on his personality instead.

Although this ‘personalisation’ strategy seemed effective when Renzi’s approval rate was high, now that voters’ support for the government is declining, this strategy may ultimately backfire. We have carried out new survey research which adds evidence to this perspective. The key finding from our research is striking: that merely mentioning the constitutional reform has been proposed by the government reduces its support among Italian voters.

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Our study in the press

The study on the Italian Referendum that I’m conducting with Céline Colombo, Andrea De Angelis, and Hanspeter Kriesi featured today on the Danish newspaper “Information”








The study featured also on a Dossier on the Italian referendum prepared by the economic think-tank “”, in addition to other media outlets:

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Referendum, paradosso del governo: deve sostenere la riforma ma se lo fa indebolisce il Sì

Articolo pubblicato su EU News, 14 novembre 2016

Roma – Di fronte al referendum costituzionale del prossimo 4 dicembre, il governo si trova davanti a un paradosso: non può non sostenere la riforma fortemente voluta dal presidente del Consiglio, Matteo Renzi, ma allo stesso tempo questo sostegno indebolisce il consenso al fronte del Sì. È la situazione che emerge da uno studio realizzato dall’Istituto universitario europeo insieme con l’Università di Zurigo e l’istituto di ricerca Swg, su un campione rappresentativo di elettori italiani con accesso a internet e che si è svolto tra il 5 ottobre e il 3 novembre scorsi.

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Teaching political psychology in Düsseldorf

The next week I’ll be at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf where I’ll be teaching a block seminar on Political Psychology. The seminar covers numerous topics that are often addressed by political psychology, ranging from decision making to the role of the elites and political parties. I personally designed the syllabus myself, and I really look forward to teaching such a fascinating discipline to bachelor and master’s students at HHU.

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Talking about Brexit and the media in Warwick

Tomorrow I’ll be presenting one of my recent studies on the UK’s EU referendum at University of Warwick. The presentation is part of the interdisciplinary workshop “Media and new technologies in the Brexit referendum“, organised by the Department of Economics and Warwick Policy Lab (WPL).

The workshop will be followed by a roundtable where I have also been invited to talk. The roundatble will bring together scholars and professionals from various backgrounds to analyse the 99 days of Theresa May’s government and the challenges to UK-EU relations brought about by Brexit.

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EPOP Conference

Last weekend I went to Canterbury to attend the 2016 EPOP Conference. The programme gathered several interesting presentations, including a whole set of studies on Britain’s EU Referendum. The conference has been an extremely stimulating venue in which I received useful feedback and comments on my paper on risk propensity and vote in referendum campaigns.

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A risk worth taking? The effect of information in the Brexit referendum

Published on The Plot blog on 18 July 2016

The outcome of the Brexit referendum has sparked a wave of comments to understand who the Leave voters are. The evidence so far indicates that those who decided to leave the EU tend to be older, less educated and poorer than those who decided to remain in the EU. However, there is another factor that seems to explain support for Brexit, i.e. voters’ inclination to take risks. Despite presenting two apparently equivalent options, referendums require voters to choose between the uncertainty of a change – such as a constitutional change or the introduction of a new policy – and the relative certainty of maintaining the status quo. In most cases, the ‘change option’ is intrinsically riskier than keeping the status quo, and the outcome of Britain’s EU referendum clearly shows that “Brexit is riskier than Bremain”, as Timothy Garton Ash wrote.

Given these differences between referendum options in terms of risks and uncertainties, we can expect risk preferences to influence not only voting decisions, but also how voters react to campaign arguments from both sides of the referendum campaign. Were risk takers more likely to vote Leave in the Brexit referendum, and how did information influence their voting decisions?

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