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Political campaign dynamics: Which channel matters most?

Campaigns matter! Who ever runs the best campaign, is going to win! As campaigners we are convinced that campaigns matter. But is this really true? Combining empirical findings from Prof. Dr. Thorsten Faas* (a political scientist from Berlin) and our very own campaigning expertise, I will try to answer this question from a more objective perspective. In the end three learnings and practical tips for campaigners will be provided.

During a campaign, people are exposed to an overwhelming amount of campaign information from many different sources, for example mass media, personal conversations or organisational communication. Organisational communication includes the information provided by parties, civil society, interest groups and government. Being campaigners, we are interested in answering the question, which sources of information are most important.

Which sources of information actually reach citizens over the course of a campaign?

Many variables intervene when it comes to the effectiveness of political messages, for example trustworthiness or political expertise of the source. For any variable to play a role however, it is essential to establish a link between the information source and the recipient. In Haas' words: “Actually being in touch with citizens is the sine qua non of successful campaign communication.” business campaigning GmbH not only shares this belief, but it is the beating heart of the business campaigning model. The campaigning formula Campaigning = Intention x Information x Interaction x Intervention

perfectly sums this up. In this equation, interaction stands for the direct dialogues and being in touch with the citizens (or specific target group). If interaction equals 0, campaigning equals zero.

There are different levels of effectiveness of these different sources. Prof. Dr. Faas has been trying to find the answer to this question, studying the "Stuttgart 21” referendum campaign. To illustrate the dynamics of the campaign in terms of information exposure, Haas tracked the campaign on a day-by-day basis. The following figure displays the results concerning the exposure to different information sources over the course of the campaign.

According to the results, about 70% of respondents did in fact receive information concerning the upcoming referendum via mass media or interpersonal channels. This rate is rather constant and only increases in the week prior to the referendum. Stronger dynamics can be found in the realm of organisational communication. Parties, as well as civil society and interest groups, are continuously on the rise, finally reaching levels of about 30 to 40%. The results for the official information provided by the government achieve a wide range, which is not obtained by any other information source.

What does that imply for the information environment in the run-up to referendums?

According to Haas' findings, mass media and organisational communication, as well as official information, provided by the federal government, played an important role. In addition to this, every-day conversations were of importance.

What does this imply for campaigners running a political campaign?

One cannot generalise these findings from the Stuttgart 21 referendum, but it is certainly useful to take some learnings from it.

  1. Exposure to mass media, but also interpersonal communication, began and remained at a high level. This may indicate the habitual nature of these information sources. For campaigners this means that we should focus on both mass media and interpersonal communication during an entire campaign. Even though social media play an important role nowadays, we should not forget to focus on interpersonal communication.

  2. When wanting to spread our message via parties and organisations we need to keep in mind, that the level of exposure to their information is rather modest. The closer the referendum comes however, the more importance they enjoy.

  3. Last but not least, as the exposure to different information sources depends on many variables, such as socio-demographic differences like age, gender and education, it is of great importance who we want to convince with our campaign. (If you want to know more about the influence of the socio-demographic factors read Faas’ paper in detail ;)). This implies that what is vitally important for campaigners, is they need to know who their target group is. The better we know our target group, the more efficient we can spread our message!

To sum this up: Campaigns matter, but the effectiveness depends on the channel you use to spread the right message to the right target group!

Happy campaigning!

* Faas, T. (2015). Bring the state (information) in: Campaign dynamics in the run-up to a German referendum. Electoral Studies, 38, 226–237.

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