Election campaigning is considered to be personalized if it focuses on the top candidates and their personal qualities more than on political issues. The personalization of campaigning is part of the personalization of politics as a whole. Moreover, the personalization of voting behavior and that of media coverage play an important role (Brettschneider 2002). Yet the personalization of election campaigns receives the bulk of criticism. Some observers see in it a dangerous trend toward depolitization. Politics, according to them, is increasingly meaningless, issues are marginalized, and elections are turned into mere beauty contests, designed by spin doctors who are practically “packaging” their candidates for the media (Franklin 2004).
The reasons for personalized election campaigning include the increasing importance of the top candidates compared to their parties, decoupling of parties and candidates, and the focus on apolitical candidate characteristics (human interest). The increasing importance of top candidates in many countries is also considered to be a part of the “Americanization” of election campaigns. Since the American president is essentially elected by the people, the candidates of the Republicans and Democrats are obviously the main protagonists. In parliamentary democracies, however, the head of government is elected by the parliament. The population votes for the candidates of their electoral districts or parties. The importance of the top candidates varies depending on the political starting point (topical agenda) and the constellation of candidates. Nevertheless, the personalization of election campaigns is not an entirely new phenomenon in parliamentary democracies. “Political leaders have always been embodying political ideals and goals as representatives of political movements and parties. The personalization of politics is as old as politics itself” (Radunski 1980, 15).
According to many observers, however, more and more top candidates tend to distance themselves from their parties these days. The top candidate, they say, is not necessarily and primarily a representative of his party any more, but faces the voters in his own right, occasionally taking positions that oppose those of his own party. Again, this tendency was first noticed in the US. The American procedure for selecting party candidates – that is, the broad diffusion of primaries since the 1970s – favors such a decoupling (Patterson 1993). Jimmy Carter, for instance, was the first American president who successfully ran as a counter pole to his own party’s establishment in Washington.
Bill Clinton also ran as an “outsider” at first. His TV spots during the 1992 presidential elections and his speech at the Democratic convention rarely mentioned the Democratic Party. Instead of presenting himself as a party politician, he ran as a pragmatist. Tony Blair followed a similar strategy in his 1997 election campaign for the House of Commons, as did Gerhard Schröder in the 1998 German parliamentary elections. The decoupling is particularly obvious in political advertising. A clearly visible party logo on the candidate’s campaign posters and flyers is much less common now than it used to be.
Most observers also claim that the focus on private issues in election campaigns is a new phenomenon. While the candidates in the US have always been showing their private side – for example in campaign ads – this has been less common in parliamentary democracies. Instead, the focus used to be on the candidates’ political role. By making the tour of popular TV shows, as well as marketing their personal background stories to the media, some politicians now want to collect sympathy points and reach those voters who have only little interest in politics. Still, most candidates seem to prefer talking about their political ideas and leadership qualities than their biography, family situation, looks, and hobbies.
Changes in voting behavior, parties, and the mass media are considered to be the cause of increasing personalization. Voters tend to be less loyal to their parties. This in turn leads to stronger fluctuations in voting behavior and a growing importance for the top candidates. At the same time, parties have changed from being doctrinal parties to catch-all parties, concentrating less on their political ideology and more on their short-term success in the elections. Top candidates are seen as a means to achieve this electoral success (Wattenberg 1991).
But more than anything, personalization is due to the development of the media system – in particular, the diffusion of commercial television. This holds true for the US as well as other western democracies (Mazzoleni & Schulz 1999). Television’s focus on prominent politicians appears to be part of a politainment trend. Campaign professionals adapt to this media logic in order to increase public attention. Key elements in this strategy are televised debates. “The modern campaign strategy which dominates all others and best fits media logic is personalization, concentrating on telegenic leaders while programs and policy proposals remain in the background” (Swanson & Mancini 1996, 272).
However, the assessment of the personalization of campaigns is beginning to change. The top candidates’ prominent position in the campaign is no longer considered to be detrimental as such. It rather depends on the type of image aspects that are focused on. If nonpolitical image components predominate and replace political issues, this will indeed be problematic. But if personalization in election campaigns is used to transmit political issues, personalization is not then the same as depolitization. Rather, personalization can be an adequate strategy in order to communicate complex content: politicians then lend their party’s policies a face and a voice.
- Brettschneider, F. (2002). Spitzenkandidaten und Wahlerfolg. Personalisierung – Kompetenz – Parteien: Ein internationaler Vergleich [Top candidates and electoral success. Personalization – competence – parties: An international comparison]. Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher.
- Franklin, B. (2004). Packaging politics: Political communication in Britain’s media democracy, 2nd edn. London: Edward Arnold.
- Mazzoleni, G., & Schulz, W. (1999). “Mediatization” of politics: A challenge for democracy? Political Communication, 16, 247–262.
- Patterson, T. E. (1993). Out of order. New York: Knopf.
- Radunski, P. (1980). Wahlkämpfe: Moderne Wahlkampfführung als politische Kommunikation [Election campaigns: Modern election campaigning as political communication]. Munich, Vienna: Olzog.
- Swanson, D. L., & Mancini, P. (eds.) (1996). Politics, media, and modern democracy: An international study of innovations in electoral campaigning and their consequences. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Wattenberg, M. P. (1991). The rise of candidate-centered politics: Presidential elections of the 1980s. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.