Political parties are groups that organize to gain political office, control the governing process, mobilize majorities, organize dissent and opposition, and socialize voters. In democratic political systems parties have emerged as the natural evolution of like-minded interests organizing for political influence. Election campaigns are one major battleground on which political parties compete for influence through political communication. Many election studies have compared the messages, advertisements, debate performances, issue preferences, and web pages of partisan candidates as well as the overall strategies of the parties themselves. In systems with primary elections, it is generally observed that campaign messages are more partisan in the intra-party primary contest (featuring just candidates from one party) and more centrist during the general election campaign (featuring candidates from several parties).
Beyond the election situation, research on party political communication has largely examined the roles and functions of party labels and the styles of partisan leaders. Party labels have been defined as cues that provide simple, direct, and consequential information in shaping individuals’ perceptions and evaluations. Party labels are considered by many to be the chief cue for individuals as they make decisions about candidates or issues. Findings from survey and experimental research suggest that labels help people make sense of their political worlds in at least five ways.
First, partisan labels are broadly understood. Research has noted that citizens recognize the predominant party labels in their political systems, that citizens and elites often agree on the broad meanings connected to party labels, and that citizens have an easier time discussing the differences between party labels than the individual candidates within a party.
Second, party labels help citizens make decisions. Party labels are argued to serve as short cuts (or heuristics) for making sense of political life. Experimental research has shown that voters are more likely to choose a candidate when partisan information is provided. This finding holds for voters who report both high and low levels of political sophistication. Even though individuals with fewer political resources are the most dependent on party labels to help them make political decisions, citizens of all levels of sophistication are found to make decisions more efficiently when labels are present.
Third, party labels are understood through partisan screens. Research shows that individuals who have an ideological view of political parties are more likely to see differences between party labels and consistently prefer their party label to the opposition’s. A similar pattern appears for the way individuals regard ideological labels (such as left, right, liberal, or conservative). At times, preferences for partisan or ideological labels can move from the group label to a leader nominated or elected by the party; indeed, studies have shown that attitudes toward party labels affect attitudes toward party nominees and that reactions to party nominees can, in turn, influence attitudes toward parties and party labels.
Fourth, party labels influence how citizens think about candidates. While the research mentioned immediately above acknowledges how individual cues can influence the way citizens regard party labels, other experimental studies have shown the opposite is true as well: when party images have been activated, citizens may not individuate political candidates (Rahn 1993). Specifically, experimental work suggests that party stereotypes (1) can function heuristically for voters when they are confronted with political information processing tasks, and (2) appear to be quite robust cognitive categories with considerable influence in many political information-processing tasks.
Fifth, party labels are regarded as dynamic. Rhetorical and public opinion research has pointed to how the visibility and favorableness of labels can change over time. Studies have noted how labels can expand or contract over time, gaining or losing emotional, ideological, or stereotypical associations that influence how individuals regard these cues as well as the parties they represent.
Political strategists and academics have explored how the parties, partisan candidates, and party issues positions can be made more attractive. In the United States, visible wordsmiths include strategists Frank Luntz and academic George Lakoff. Working for the Republican side, Luntz has employed focus groups and public opinion surveys to test phrases to help conservatives get elected, frame public policy debates, and garner more flattering news coverage. In his research as a linguist, Lakoff (2002) has offered advice as to how Democratic and left leaning voices could begin to respond to the long-term linguistic efforts of the right. He recommends (1) creating framing devices that benefit a leftist perspective and (2) building counter-narratives to recast many of the ways in which contemporary politics are being discussed. In Europe, scholarly attention has focused on the branding practices of political parties, including such processes as rebranding (e.g., the Labour Party emerging as the “New Labour Party”) and brand management (see Newman 1999).
Scholars have also compared the rhetorical and cognitive styles of partisans from the left and the right. Rhetorician Richard Weaver observed that conservatives argue from definition (basing their positions on fundamental principles) and liberals from circumstance (basing their cases on conditions and contingencies). Political communication research has offered empirical support for Weaver’s claim, documenting distinct partisan styles in politicians from the left and the right (Jarvis 2005). Psychologist Philip Tetlock has found conservatives (Republicans in the United States) and liberals (Democrats) display differing cognitive styles. Specifically, research on US senators and Supreme Court justices has shown that Republicans are more cognitively simple than Democrats. These findings do not mean that Republicans are less intelligent than Democrats. Instead, conservatives are more parsimonious in their thinking and arguments than their liberal peers, whereas advocates of centrist and moderate to left-wing causes tend to interpret and express issues in more complex and multidimensional ways (Tetlock 1983).
- Jarvis, S. (2005). Talk of the party: Political labels, symbolic capital and American life. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Newman, B. (1999). Handbook of political marketing. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Rahn, W. M. (1993). The role of partisan stereotypes in information processing about political candidates. American Journal of Political Science, 37, 472–496.
- Sanders, A. (1988). The meaning of party images. Western Political Quarterly, 41, 583–599.
- Tetlock, P. E. (1983). Cognitive style and political ideology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 118–126.
- Weaver, R. M. (1953). The ethics of rhetoric. Chicago: Regnery.