André Borges and Mathieu Turgeon – Presidential coattails in coalitional presidentialism

This is a guest post by André Borges and Mathieu Turgeon, both of whom are assistant professors of political science at the University of Brasília. It is based on a recent article in Party Politics.

Research on coalitional presidentialism has focused mostly on post-electoral coalition formation, neglecting the  pre-electoral origins of cabinets  in many – if not most – presidential countries with multiparty systems (Albala 2014; Chasquetti 2008; Freudenreich 2016). Kellam (2015) analyzed pre-electoral coalition formation in presidential elections in eleven Latin American countries from the 1980s to the late 2000s, and found that 35% of all presidential candidates that obtained at least 10% of the national vote formed a coalition with one or more parties. Although pre-electoral coalitions in presidential elections are a rather frequent phenomenon, there is a paucity of research on the causes and consequences of these pre-electoral alliances. In particular, the literature on presidential coattails has failed to consider the potential impacts of multiparty alliances on party system formation, assuming that parties entering the presidential race as members of an alliance do not obtain electoral gains (Mainwaring and Shugart 1997; Shugart and Carey 1992; West and Spoon 2015). That is, the coattail effect benefits only parties that enter the race with a candidate of their own, as voters rely on the party of their preferred presidential candidate as an information shortcut to help them decide how to vote in legislative election (Golder 2006). But, if allied parties do not benefit from presidential coattails and they actually risk losing credibility and weakening their party base if the coalition is not perceived as adequate , why would they support a presidential candidate from another party in the first place? Even if parties believe that entering a pre-electoral coalition will increase their chances of entering the presidential cabinet, they cannot be sure of the supported candidate’s victory in the presidential contest (Freudenreich 2016).

In a recent article (Borges and Turgeon 2017), we challenge the conventional wisdom on presidential coattails and pre-electoral coalitions.  By focusing on coattails from the president-elect party—the coalition formateur—we argue that presidential coattails in coalitional presidentialism benefit not only the party of the president-elect but also the coalition party members, which has  important implications for coalition formation in presidential systems. This is what we label a diffused coattail effect.

In multiparty presidential systems, parties that are viable contenders in the presidential election are likely to “presidentialize”, shifting resources away from their legislative campaigns and focusing on the presidential race (Samuels 2002). To secure the necessary votes to win the presidency, large parties form electoral coalitions with smaller parties and adopt broad campaign strategies. Specifically, they avoid pure partisan campaign strategies and campaign, instead, on behalf of the coalition to mobilize as many voters as possible for the presidential election.

Coalition fomateurs understand that there are costs for parties to join their coalition and are disposed to make important concessions to convince them to join forces. These concessions include, in part, supporting coalition party members in simultaneous, lower-level elections and by making sure that candidates from the coalition formateur party do not “invade” the electoral strongholds of the other coalition party members. Moreover, presidential candidates campaign on behalf of the whole coalition and not only for their own party, especially in other simultaneous, lower-level electoral contests like legislative elections. In exchange, coalition party members aggregate valuable organizational and financial resources to help the formateur party reach segments of the electorate otherwise less accessible but necessary to win the presidential election.

We believe coalition party members benefit from presidential coattails because the parties involved in the coalition work together to coordinate their campaign strategies at all levels (presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial and lower chamber races). But coalitions are not all created equal and the effects they carry over election results depend, in part, on the ability of coalition party members to coordinate effectively with the formateur party. Specifically, we believe that coalition party members that coordinate more effectively with the formateur party should benefit more from presidential coattails than those who don’t. We classify coalition party members into core and peripheral coalition party members. Core coalition party members are defined as those that are close ideologically to the formateur party and that have adopted consistent strategies in the governing and electoral arenas in the past.

Coalition party members that have participated in the past governing coalition can benefit from the president’s popularity during the election by claiming credit for key government programs, tying their fortunes with that of the incumbent president. Moreover, coalition party members that have participated in previous electoral coalitions with the same formateur party should be associated more strongly to the said coalition by voters than those coalition party members that have not. Finally, we believe that coalition party members will coordinate more forcefully the closer they are ideologically to the coalition formateur because, in that scenario, both can tailor campaign messages courting ideologically similar voters.

We test two hypotheses. First, we argue that presidential coattails are diffused, benefiting the president’s party but also her coalition party members. Second, we claim that The diffused coattails effect in coalitional presidentialism should benefit more strongly core coalition party members, as compared to peripheral coalition party members.

To evaluate the two hypotheses we analyze data from Brazil and Chile. These two countries are widely studied cases of coalitional presidentialism where multiparty coalitions play a fundamental role in the governing and electoral arenas. Overall, Chile represents a most-likely case for diffused presidential coattails because its governing and electoral coalitions are stable and ideologically coherent. Brazil, on the other hand, represents a least-likely case for diffused presidential coattails because it shows much less congruence between its governing and electoral coalitions and its electoral coalitions are unstable and generally not ideologically coherent. We believe that such design allows for robust testing of our hypotheses of presidential coattails in coalitional presidentialism. Finding only weakly supportive evidence (or no evidence at all) of diffused coattails in Chile would seriously undermine or lead to outright rejection of our theoretical claims.  On the other hand, if we succeeded in finding evidence of diffused coattails in Brazil, this should strongly support the view that presidential coattails exhibit dynamics of their own in coalitional presidentialism.

Our statistical analysis of coattail effects using data on district-level electoral returns in Brazil and Chile shows that presidential coattails in coalitional presidentialism are diffused, benefiting the president’s party and her core coalition party members. Presidential coattails, however, do not affect coalition party members equally. Core coalition party members, that is, those that are more strongly associated with the coalition formateur, are the sole beneficiaries of presidential coattails. No presidential coattail effect is discernible for peripheral coalition parties.

Admittedly, we cannot make claims about the presence or not of similar diffused presidential coattails in other cases of coalitional presidentialism. We have very good reasons to believe, however, that this phenomenon extends beyond the Chilean and Brazilian cases. In particular, both Chile and Brazil are open-list PR systems. In closed-list PR systems, which are most commonly found in other cases of coalitional presidentialism, intra-coalition coordination is profoundly facilitated. Under such electoral rules, parties can more easily divide the expected seats among coalition partners by ordering the candidates’ names on party lists in each district in a way that benefits more fairly coalition party members (Cruz 2010; Leiras 2007).

Future research should explore further the broader implications of the diffused coattail effect for coalitional presidential systems and party systems, more generally. One such possibility deals with the relationship between electoral and governing coalitions. Our results, for example, suggest that the electoral success of peripheral coalition party members is not tied to that of the coalition formateur party. Consequently, their behavior within the governing coalition could be distinct than that of core coalition party members and could potentially affect the stability of governing coalitions. Thus we may ask: are peripheral coalition party members less loyal and possibly more demanding than core coalition party members? Similarly, are threats to leave the governing coalition more credible than those made by core coalition party members? These are other interesting questions to be explored.

Finally, diffused presidential coattails may also contribute to maintain or even increase party fragmentation in the lower chamber. That is, different from traditional arguments on presidential coattails and party systems, the theoretical argument and empirical evidence presented in this paper indicate that presidential coattails, when diffused, foster instead the survival and growth of small parties. Contrary to West and Spoon’s (2015) findings about electoral coalitions, it is not clear whether this will always and necessarily lead to lower fragmentation in legislative elections. These questions should be of great interest to comparativists given the spread of coalitional presidentialism in Latin America, Africa and the former Soviet Union.


Albala, Adrian. 2014. “The Timing Effect of Presidentialism on Coalition Governments: evidence from Latin America.” In 23rd IPSA World Congress, Montreal, CA.

Borges, André, and Mathieu Turgeon. 2017. Presidential coattails in coalitional presidentialism. Party Politics: 1-11.

Chasquetti, Daniel. 2008. Democracia, presidencialismo y partidos políticos en América Latina: evaluando la” difícil combinación”. Ediciones Cauce-CSIC.

Cruz, Facundo. 2010. Relaciones e interacciones partidarias en coaliciones de gobierno. Los casos de la Alianza, la Concertación y el Frente Amplio. Revista Debates Latinoamericanos 8: 15.

Freudenreich, Johannes. 2016. The Formation of Cabinet Coalitions in Presidential Systems. Latin American Politics and Society 58 (4): 80-102.

Golder, Matt. 2006. Presidential Coattails and Legislative Fragmentation. American Journal of Political Science 50 (1): 34-48.

Kellam, Marisa. 2015. Why Pre-Electoral Coalitions in Presidential Systems? British Journal of Political Science 47: 391-411.

Leiras, Marcelo. 2007. Todos los caballos del rey: la integración de los partidos políticos y el gobierno democrático de la Argentina, 1995-2003. Prometeo libros.

Mainwaring, Scott, and Matthew Soberg Shugart. 1997. Presidentialism and democracy in Latin America. . Cambridge University Press.

Samuels, David. 2002. Presidentialized Parties: The separation of powers and party organization and behavior. Comparative Political Studies 35 (4): 461-83.

Shugart, Matthew, and John M. Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional design and electoral dynamics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

West, Karleen Jones, and Jae-Jae Spoon. 2015. Coordination and presidential coattails Do parties’ presidential entry strategies affect legislative vote share? Party Politics: 1-11.

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