Campaign Communications in U.S. Congressional Elections

This is a review of Campaign Communications in U.S. Congressional Elections (2009) by James N. Druckman, Martin J. Kifer, and Michael Parkin. American Political Science Review 103 (August): 343-366. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

The authors have identified a cheap, easy way to capture a fuller sample of current campaign messages.

We’ve long known that most voters pay little attention to campaign rhetoric; they pay far more attention to partisanship, incumbency, and other easily accessible considerations (although rhetoric certainly has its place).1 Still, candidates work hard to develop arguments that, they hope, will sway voters to their side.

The question: How do candidates decide what to emphasize in their campaign communications? When do they go negative? When do they stick to the issues? When do they emphasize their experience and community ties? And given how many thousands of campaigns are run around this country each election cycle, how can we possible study all this?

There has been some previous work on this question, but most of it has looked at television ads or media coverage. Both sources have flaws. Television ads and media coverage are more common in the most competitive races, since safe incumbents don’t spend money on ads. They are also more common in Senate races than House races. How, then, can we use television ads to see how rhetoric is different in competitive races or in House races than in other races?

In a recent article, Druckman et al. avoid these problems by looking instead at rhetoric in Congressional campaign websites in 2002, 2004, and 2006. Although not all candidates had websites in 2002, by 2004 and 2006 just about every major-party Congressional candidate had a website. And what do we learn?

Findings

  • Challengers are far more likely than incumbents to use negative attacks (whether personal attacks or issue contrasts) than incumbents.
  • Challengers are more likely than incumbents to use “Web 2.0” technologies that enable visitors to create content (e.g. via commenting on the site).
  • Challengers are more likely than incumbents to stress their party affiliation and to bring up issues that their party “owns,” particularly if the incumbent is not a member of the district’s majority party.2
  • Incumbents are more likely than challengers to emphasize their experience, their long history in the district, and the specific benefits (pork) they have provided to the district. This is especially true in hotly contested districts; elsewhere, incumbents are unlikely to put much effort at all into their websites.

Theory

Druckman and his colleagues tell a compelling story to explain these findings. Briefly, and with considerable re-interpretation by me:

  • Going negative and enabling interactive Web 2.0 technologies are risky. Since incumbents enjoy significant electoral advantages3, they feel no need to take on these risks. But challengers seeking to overcome these advantages may find these risks worth taking. Thus, challengers are more likely to pepper their sites with negative comments and also to provide forums, wikis, or commenting interfaces.
  • Partisanship is often as valuable a cue to voters as incumbency. Thus, challengers make a partisan case against incumbents who belong to the district’s minority party.
  • Incumbents want to do what they can to strengthen their incumbency advantage. Thus, an emphasis on talking about things that only incumbents have (experience, credit claiming opportunities, etc).

Importance

The authors’ biggest contribution is their thorough, thoughtful, and insightful use of campaign websites. This data source allows for a near-universal (especially after 2002), unfiltered look at what candidates want voters to hear. And this method does, indeed, yield different results than we would find if the authors had relied on more traditional data sources, such as TV ads or media coverage. When the authors restrict their analysis to those races that had significant ad buys or media coverage, many of their important results disappear into statistical oblivion. The authors have identified a cheap, easy way to capture a fuller sample of current campaign messages.

Quibbles and parting jabs

I like this article, but the authors need to be careful not to oversell their contribution.4 Reliance on websites as a true measure of what messages campaigns are actually pushing may not be as much a panacea as claimed.

First: Who reads campaign websites? The authors use a survey of campaign web developers to show who, in the developers’ minds, reads the websites. Even the developers concede that the main target audience–swing voters–is the least likely of all to actually visit the site. But remember that the web developers probably dramatically overestimate the importance of their product. How else would they sell their services? Consider the websites of two prominent members of Congress: Eric Cantor (Republican Whip) and Jim Clyburn (Democratic Whip).5 Alexa.com is a free service that tracks how many people view websites.6 Alexa reports that so few people visit Cantor’s (report) and Clyburn’s (report) sites that it can’t even provide an estimate of their reach.7 So, I ask: Do we have evidence that anybody actually reads these websites?

Druckman et al. would probably counter that it doesn’t matter whether anybody visits the site. What matters is that the site summarizes the campaign messages being used by the candidate generally, both online, in ads, and in appearances. Well…

Second: Do candidates actually push the same messages in the real world as in their websites? You can fit many, many campaign messages into a website. You can only fit a small handful into a single ad, appearance, or mailer. Perhaps candidates intentionally place their most provocative messages on their websites to avoid having to say them to their opponent’s face during a debate. We saw this in the 2008 presidential race. Both presidential campaigns released their worst ads online only, knowing that the media would see them and relay the attack’s message to conflict-hungry viewers. This was a hands-off way for candidates to get negative messages out into the blogosphere without having to push the messages personally. If that happens in Congressional races too, then this study is flawed–perhaps deeply.

But again. I like the article. It makes a fabulous contribution. The authors do as most of us do, however, by overselling their point.

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