My research combines a theoretical focus on political campaigns, issue framing, lobbying, transnational social movements, and diffusion with a regional focus on the European Union. Methodologically, I use in-depth interview data, media content analyses, and public opinion data.
My book with CUP, Framing the European Union, demonstrates how political language affects public opinion towards European integration. It examines six EU referendum votes: Spain, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg on the European Constitutional Treaty (TCE) in 2005; and Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty (a modified version of the TCE) in 2008 and 2009. While the referendums in Spain and Luxembourg approved the European Constitution, the ones in France and the Netherlands rejected it. Most intriguingly, the Irish public first rejected but then approved the Lisbon Treaty. In all six instances, polls show that the voting publics favored the referendum proposals before the referendum campaigns began. However, this initially positive public opinion melted away in three of the six cases. Why did this occur in some referendum votes but not in others? This book demonstrates that the key to the puzzle lies in political campaigns: Political actors’ campaign argumentation strategies can, at least temporarily, reverse public opinion enough to affect referendum outcomes. The analysis is based on over 140 in-depth interviews with campaigners and senior EU officials, on media content analyses, and on public opinion data from all five countries. Interviewees, who included European ministers, members of parliament, party strategists, civil society activists, and EU officials and Members of European Parliament, all spoke openly and on the record.
My recent article in EJPR investigates the asymmetrical political advantage in EU referendum campaigns. The broader literature on referendums and public opinion suggest that in a referendum, the ‘No’ side typically has the advantage since it can boost the public’s fears by linking the proposal to unpopular issues. This article asks: Does the anti-EU treaty campaign have more advantage than the pro-EU treaty campaign in these referendums? I analyze campaign strategies in 11 EU treaty ratification referendums, which provide a clear juxtaposition between pro-treaty (‘Yes’) and anti-treaty (‘No’) campaigns. Based on 140 interviews with campaigners in 11 referendums, a series of indicators on political setting and campaign characteristics, as well as an in-depth case study of the 2012 Irish Fiscal Compact referendum, I find that the anti-treaty side indeed holds the advantage if it engages the debate. Nonetheless, the findings also show that this advantage is not unconditional. The underlying mechanism rests on the multidimensionality of the issue. The extent to which the referendum debate includes a large variety of ‘No’ campaign arguments correlates strongly with the campaigners’ perceived advantage/disadvantage, and the referendum results. When the ‘No’ side’s arguments are limited (either through a single-issue treaty or guarantees from the EU), this provides the ‘Yes’ side with a ‘cleaner’ agenda with which to work.
My research on EU referendums also focuses on campaign strategies in ‘double referendums’. If voters are asked to vote twice on the same issue in a single year, why might they initially reject the proposal but then vote to approve it the second time? This has happened three times in EU referendums (Denmark on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992–93 and Ireland on the Nice Treaty in 2001–02 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008–09). In a recent article, which appeared in JCMS, I compare all ‘double referendum’ cases and show that the Yes campaigners learned from their mistakes and changed their campaign strategies in the second rounds. Not only did they secure guarantees from the EU to neutralize the No side’s arguments, they also used more emotional campaign arguments in the second campaigns. I am currently working on increasing the scope of this project by adding a control case: the Irish referendum on Fiscal Treaty in 2012, to test my findings further. This case was not a double referendum; it was a single, positive vote. Nevertheless, the Irish public approved the referendum proposal despite the publicly known possibility of a second referendum. As such, this case provides a unique opportunity to compare campaign strategies in successful and unsuccessful first rounds. Moreover, this case allows me to study how direct democracy functions during economic crises. It is thus a valuable addition to my previous, detailed data on ten EU referendums. By comparing the previous cases with the second Lisbon referendum (2009) and the Fiscal Compact referendum (2012) which took place in the thick of the Eurozone crisis, I seek to explain how the role of campaign framing changes during economic crises.
I am also fascinated by diffusion processes across EU referendums. My article in JEI focuses on the problem of cross-case influences and applies diffusion theories to the study of referendum campaigns. Based on a close analysis of diffusion effects among the 2005 Constitutional Treaty referendums in Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, I find that campaign arguments and strategies were not always homegrown. However, such diffusion was not automatic and depended on diffusion channels.
My current and future research has two paths. First, I continue my research agenda on referendums by studying the role of political language in the Brexit referendum via interviews and survey experiments. Second, I work on regulation of digital security by examining the influence of interest groups on Internet privacy and data protection regulation in the EU.