Election campaigns are among the most important events in the lives of democracies and societies in transition. Campaigns often constitute the high points in public debate about political issues. Election campaign communication takes different forms in different national and regional contexts. It is shaped by both party and media systems and by the regulatory environment governing the campaign process. Election communication is also influenced by the balance of party and media forces in shaping the news agenda, and that balance has been tipped by the increasing role played by citizens and interest groups in generating messages and news about parties, leaders, and issues.
The Campaign In The News
Television continues to be the main source of information for most people at election time. Television news is the most common vehicle through which particularly the undecided voters and people who are politically uninterested get information about campaign events. That said, market pressures have come to affect the availability of main evening television news in many countries. One glaring consequence in the UK, for example, has been the complete evacuation of news from prime time on what were traditionally the flagship television news channels, BBC1 and ITV1. While prime-time television on the European continent by comparison continues to offer a great deal in the way of news and current affairs programming, the wealth of nonpolitical entertainment offerings provide new ways to opt out. Yet, as program formats change and the lines between hard and soft news as well as between politics and entertainment blur, there are growing chances that election campaign-related information reaches even the politically inattentive citizens (Baum 2002).
The politically interested have a vast array of places to find campaign news, particularly in media systems with a diverse supply of daily newspapers and a well-established public broadcasting system. But even there, the mission of public service television to “inform, educate, and entertain” was probably never before so focused on the need to maintain status and ratings. News programs have become increasingly tailored to the demographics and assumed interests of their target audience. Moving from analogue to digital has fragmented audiences further. The 2005 British general election was described by those in the news business as the last election in the pre-digital age in which the general public was able to view the campaign as a common civic experience.
Changing Campaign Communication
Media system changes are a major factor driving the modernization and “Americanization” of election campaigns. The term “Americanization” has been criticized for being applied by some scholars as a shorthand reference to the range of new techniques and opportunities being used to influence voters at election time in countries around the world. The transformation of campaign communication is described as a greater tendency toward personalized reporting on the top party leaders or candidates, greater emphasis on campaign rhetoric as opposed to information about party policies, and increasingly negative as opposed to neutral or favorable reporting on the candidates in the campaign. Published election polls and forecasts, often commissioned by the media themselves, have given high prominence to the question of who is ahead and who is trailing behind.
Yet as far back as the early 1980s, when election campaign communication in general elections in the US and UK was compared systematically, it was clear that election communication on television in the US stood quite apart from the UK (Semetko et al. 1991). American election television was found to be more condensed, more focused on the electoral chances of the candidates, and more evaluative and negative in tone. American election news on television was also more inclined to diminish the prominence of the campaign in the news because story selection was primarily guided by conventional news values rather than by the educational and informational ethos of British public service broadcasting.
In Germany, major changes have been observed by long-term studies showing that strategy or horse race frames have become increasingly salient in election coverage over the years (Esser & Hemmer, in press). In the main evening flagship news programs on television, the top candidates are nowadays more often seen with exciting and colorful pictures, which was uncommon in television news campaign reporting in the past (Schulz & Zeh 2005). This is partly due to the news discussions of televised debates that have been launched in recent election campaigns. In many countries televised debates, as an adaptation of the American television format, became key events of election campaigns, often reaching a larger audience, generating more media coverage, and impacting more on voters’ opinion formation than any other single campaign event.
Patterson’s (1993) study of US presidential election campaign news over time (comparing news at each election over three decades from 1960 to 1992), found that it had become less descriptive, less issue-oriented, and less favorable over time. It had also become more analytical, more horse race-oriented, and more negative over time, with less time for candidates to speak in their own words. Patterson’s (2002) study of the “vanishing voter” in the 2000 presidential election shows how this negative news may be discouraging citizens from taking part in the election campaign and may ultimately have negative consequences for electoral turn-out.
A central question of election research is whether and to what degree different modes and media of campaign communication have an influence on voters’ opinion formation and on the election outcome – or, as some authors put it plainly: Does the campaign matter? The answer varies to some degree, depending on the national context, the political situation, the type of election, the media under study, and other factors (see, e.g., Farrell & Schmitt-Beck 2002; Norris 2006; Gunther et al. 2007). A review of the empirical evidence by Iyengar & Simon (2000) concludes that “campaigns do matter and can be pivotal.”
Election campaigns quite often serve as a kind of “laboratory” for developing and testing media effect models. The seminal Erie County study by Lazarsfeld et al. (1944) is an early and highly influential example. Several key concepts of media effects research, such as the selectivity principle and the opinion leader concept, originate from this study.
Likewise, the agenda-setting concept, which is one of the most widely used models in contemporary communication research, has been advanced in election campaign studies. Over the past few decades, hundreds of studies have found support for the hypothesis of media agenda-setting effects, with evidence that the media play an important role in shaping the issue priorities of citizens in the context of election campaigns by giving priority in the news to some issues over others (for review, see McCombs 2004). But searching for agenda-setting effects does not always lead to finding them. Research on general elections in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, and on Germany’s historically important “unity election” in 1990, for example, has shown that media agendas do not always coincide with or influence audience agendas during campaigns (Norris et al. 1999; Semetko & Schönbach 1994). The type of issue may also condition media’s power to influence public agendas. “Unobtrusive” issues – such as foreign affairs issues with which people have little or no direct experience – may be more susceptible to agenda setting than “obtrusive” issues relating to problems people may have direct personal experience of, such as inflation and unemployment.
Evidence of media priming – the media’s role in providing the standards by which citizens evaluate political leaders and candidates – was found in a number of election studies. Through focusing on certain events or issues more than others during the campaign, the media can influence perceptions of candidates. Iyengar & Kinder (1987) defined priming more specifically as changes in the standards used by the public to evaluate political leaders, and found support for the priming hypothesis in their experiments. The cognitive processes at work are the focus of much of the priming research.
Framing goes beyond the concept of agenda-setting research to study how people think and talk about campaign issues (Reese et al. 2001). Entman (1993) has described the process of framing as selecting certain aspects of a perceived reality, which then promotes a certain definition of a problem, a certain interpretation of its cause, a certain moral evaluation of the situation, and a certain recommendation for solving or treating the problem. Framing effects have been described as evident when the important attributes of a message (the way in which it is organized, or the content, for example) lead us to draw on particular thoughts in making evaluations or judgments about a problem or issue. This is particularly relevant during election campaigns when parties and candidates are trying to communicate their ability to handle some issues more competently than their competitors. Much of the research on issue perception is based on the assumption that the salience and framing of issues have an influence on electoral choices.
Research on political advertising in election campaigns examines the negative character of news and advertising and its potential effects, and negative campaigning and the consequences for voter mobilization. With new technology available in the US to capture targeted advertising and to identify its audience, a new dimension has been added to the investigation of the effects of television advertising in election campaigns (Goldstein & Freedman 2002). Cable and satellite technology in the US make it possible to identify the (political) advertising broadcast at the (constituency) target level, and researchers have begun to investigate the links between the two. These developments are boosting the professionalization and marketing-orientation of campaigning.
Our understanding of campaign effects has been advanced considerably by research that has focused primarily on the US context. Over the past few decades research has also advanced theoretically and methodologically with a number of international comparative studies (see, e.g., Swanson & Mancini 1996; Farrell & Schmitt-Beck 2002; de Vreese & Semetko 2004; Gunther et al. 2007).
The New Media Campaign Environment
The new media have altered the battle over the campaign agenda that was once waged primarily between journalists on the one hand and politicians/strategists/interest groups on the other. Traditionally, politicians and their political parties sought to control the message through staged appearances on the campaign trail, in preplanned press conferences and media interviews, and via political advertising. In the 1960s, in the UK and the US for example, the most important journalists reporting on the campaign were “on the bus” with the candidate traveling from one campaign venue to another. Common perspectives on a candidate’s or party leader’s abilities and accomplishments often emerged; the term “pack journalism” was used to describe how those collective judgments emerged among journalists who traveled together, like wolves, in a pack.
Apart from the increasing reliance on air transport to get candidates and party leaders from one campaign event to another, a bigger change was felt with the arrival of the Internet as a widely available source of campaign information used by citizens, journalists, and strategists. Candidates have more to gain and more to lose in this new media environment. The technology-driven reality check provided by the occasional transmission of citizens’ candid videos of political gatherings can potentially dramatically alter the campaign or the chances of a candidate if a gaffe or inappropriate remark ends up posted online. Citizens can also become actively involved in interacting with the candidates’ campaigns while never leaving their computer. In many countries nowadays politically interested citizens can have a potentially greater voice and impact on the day-to-day campaign agenda simply by consistently offering their opinions and developing a reputation online.
Success is measured by the volume of hits at a website or the times that new news spills over from the website into the mainstream campaign media agenda and causes others to recognize it and respond. Blogs have become very popular and have created new ways of campaigning and even more opportunities for grassroots organizing and fundraising. Mobile telephones and text messaging (SMS) as well as direct marketing mailings and email spamming are also used for mobilizing and influencing voters. For example, during the 2007 French presidential campaign, the winning candidate Sarkozy sent unsolicited emails to more than a million voters.
A key characteristic of media convergence is an emphasis on visuals. We may expect more visuals, in relation to text, in the future. Visuals play a vital role in political learning, as Doris Graber’s (2001) research demonstrates, and in the retention and understanding of political information. As television and the Internet become more graphic and visual and less text-driven, there will be new forms of political learning. Unsophisticated viewers differ from sophisticated viewers in handling messages that contain complex and possibly contradictory verbal and visual cues. The new media environment for election campaign communication will have implications for both groups.
With the arrival of virtual worlds in 2003, such as www.secondlife.com, candidates, protestors, campaigns, and corporations have opportunities to reinvent themselves online in a virtual space that leading business publications are now claiming is the edge marketing of the future. Virtual worlds face many of the same problems of governance and empowerment as can be found in the real world. Recent election campaigns in a number of countries around the world, such as France, Japan, and the US, have been the subject of activity in the virtual world. There has also been discussion of challenges posed to those activities by regulations in the real world. In Japan, for example, the strict regulations guiding the forms of campaigning in the real world meant that one politician had to shut down his virtual world office during the official campaign period.
As the early onset of the 2008 US presidential elections has demonstrated, with numerous internal party debates among the candidates, television news is moving to accommodate and feature the new media. One of the new developments in summer 2007 in one nationally televised debate among the many contenders in the field of Democratic Party candidates was CNN’s decision to cooperate with YouTube to feature questions to the candidates from viewers via YouTube. Some viewers whose questions were aired were also brought into the studio to comment on the debate’s content and new format. Overall, the post-debate coverage evaluated this new format quite positively, suggesting that the combination of old and new media brings excitement into the debate because of the direct involvement of citizens in the campaign process. We can therefore expect more efforts to create new formats with old and new media, and not only in the US.
Election campaign communication is a vitally important part of the electoral process. It has become increasingly important to electoral outcomes over the decades in advanced democracies, as voters have shown themselves to be more volatile and willing to switch parties or candidates between and during election campaigns (Dalton 2000). Given the new media landscape, we may anticipate more voter involvement in creating election campaign communication in the future.
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