Why Immigrants vote Social Democrats

In many Western countries, the immigrant electorate has become large enough to impact the electoral fortunes of the political parties. In countries such as France, Sweden, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the UK, immigrants that have the right to vote in national elections make up for more than a fifth of the total electorate. As I show in a recent review of the literature, these nationals with first and second generation migration background tend to vote overproportionally for Social Democratic parties. Why is that?

Two standard explanations for immigrants’ preferences for Social Democratic parties have been their class position and preferences on migration politics. Since immigrants have traditionally been overrepresented among the working class and Social Democrats have represented the interests of the lower classes, it is intuitive to assume that class can explain gaps in voter preferences between natives and immigrants. However, not only is the image of the immigrant as the South European guestworker more and more outdated, also have Social Democratic parties lost grip on the working class. This explains why class has shown to be surprisingly unable to explain vote choice of immigrant voters.

Maybe even more surprising, studies on the electoral behavior so far show that attitudes towards immigration are also of small importance to immigrants’ vote choice. Indeed, in a study on a popular initiative against mass immigration in Switzerland, Javier Polavieja (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) and I found that immigrants were about as likely to vote in favor of this anti-immigrant proposal as the natives. Similarly, studies on immigrants’ vote choice in Germany and Switzerland were unable to explain variance in vote choice between natives and immigrants with preferences on migration policies.

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What if not class or preferences on migration policies can explain the gap in vote choice between natives and immigrants? In my opinion, it is a hostile discourse towards and the perception of discrimination by immigrants that can best explain why they tend to vote for the Social Democrats, which frame immigration in positive ways and actively support anti-discrimination policies. However, not all immigrants are treated and perceived equally. Especially individuals with migration backgrounds belonging to outgroups are treated less generously than those belonging to ingroups and might feel discriminated and hence turn towards parties that position themselves as pro-immigrant parties.

Which immigrants are categorized as an outgroup depends to an important extent on a country’s specific ethnic hierarchy, i.e. the informal system of stratification that ranks people according to status based on their ethnicity. Those who have a migration background of a country of origin that is low in this ranking belong to the outgroup. For example, in Western Europe migrants from other European countries are often seen as more popular (e.g. they are preferred as neighbors) than those from non-Western countries. However, who belongs to an outgroup is not only related to country of origin but might also be determined by cultural markers such as religion. For instance, in the context of widespread islamophobia people of Muslim denomination typically have a lower status in Western society than others even if they share the same country of origin.

Figure.- Vote intention in Germany by migration background

The impact of migration background on vote choice can be illustrated with data on Germany. The Figure above shows vote intentions by migration background in the largest European country since the mid-1990s. It depicts the general tendency of immigrants to vote for the political left consisting of The Left, the Greens, and the German Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as well as the strong variance in voting behavior across immigrant groups. It shows that it is mostly the immigrants with a Turkish migration background that overwhelmingly vote for the Social Democrats. This is in line with findings from other Western European countries and is mirrored by a preference for the Social Democrats by other outgroups such as the Moroccans in Belgium and the Netherlands as well as the non-Western immigrants in the UK.

In contrast, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries tend to vote for the Christian Democrats, and even more so than the natives. The case of the voters with East European migration background illustrates the main exception to the bias towards the Left of the immigrants. Immigrants that have made negative experiences with Socialist or Communist regimes tend to vote for centrist or right parties. This is a result that has not only been found for Eastern European migrants in Western Europe, but travels to the context of the US where immigrants from Cuba traditionally prefer the Republicans over the Democrats and to Spain where voters with Venezuelan migration background prefer the Right.

While not all immigrant groups tend to be equally supportive of the Social Democrats, migrants are generally supportive of the Social Democrats and belong in some countries already to their traditional electoral constituencies. With the continuous increase of the number of voters with migration background and the decline of the traditional working class, the importance of this constituency for Social Democrats will only increase.

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