Analyzing Strategies of Professionalized Political Communication in Online Campaign Posters
A comparative Study Between a Party and a Candidate Centred System
Jon M. Veen Salazar 13320211 Master´s Thesis University of Amsterdam Graduate School of Communication
Master´s in Communication Science (Political Communication) Dr. C.M. (Corinna) Oschatz
Word count: 7471 July 1, 2022
The new political campaigning era is becoming highly professionalized due to an increasing integration of newer digital campaign tools in parties’ communication. With regard to online campaign posters, the past years have seen an extensive use of this communication tool in both Spanish and U.S. parties. Recently, it has been shown that campaign posters replicate older strategies of professionalized political communication (i.e. personalization, de-ideologization and negative campaigning). However, Spain and the United States represent examples of countries with two different political systems. This raises the question whether a party and a candidate centred system differ in their use of strategies of professionalized political communication in the newer campaign medium of online posters. In view of the foregoing, I conducted a quantitative content analysis of visual and textual elements of online campaign posters (N = 240) for the last 2019 and 2020 Spanish and U.S. election campaigns respectively.
Although the results reveal that online posters are slightly more negative in the U.S., no significant differences were observed to conclude that both political system differ with regards to their use of strategies of professionalization in campaign posters. Thus, the findings call for a more nuanced scientific analysis of the theoretical assumptions that suggest higher levels of professionalization of political communication in candidate centred systems. Nevertheless, the increasing trends of personalization and de-ideologization showed in both countries, contributes to a growing body of evidence confirming that OCP´s are a very appropriate medium to study strategies of professionalization of political communication during election campaigns.
Keywords: campaign posters, professionalization, social media campaigning, party centred system, candidate centred system
Analyzing strategies of professionalized political communication in online campaign posters: A comparative study between a party and a candidate centred system
The new political campaigning era, labeled as the social media era, is characterized by a strong professionalization (Vergeer et al., 2013). During election campaigns, this professionalization becomes observable when political parties make use of their own social media channels to communicate with voters (Negrine et al., 2007). Fundamentally, professionalization is commonly described as a process leading to a strong focus on the party head, general detachment towards ideological references and high levels of negativity towards the opponent (Brants & van Praag, 2006). In the context of offline campaigning, several scholars identified personalization, de-ideologization and negative campaigning as strategies of professionalized political communication (Holtz-Bacha, 2002; Schweitzer, 2008;
With the rise of social media platforms, new digital communication tools for parties have emerged (Strömback & Esser, 2017; Steffan & Venema, 2019). These newer tools, such as online campaign posters (OCP´s), have also witnessed this shift to professionalized campaigning due to an increasing integration of them in political campaigns of several party and candidate centred systems (Steffan & Venema, 2020). Recently, it has been shown that OCP´s replicate older strategies of professionalized political communication (Chadwick, 2017;
Steffan & Venema, 2020). Therefore, in light of this highly professionalized social media environment, OCP´s are a very appropriate medium to study strategies of professionalization of political campaigns.
However, although campaign posters have been essential means of communication for party and candidate centred systems, too little attention has been given to the use of strategies of professionalized political communication in social media campaigning, especially, in a comparative way between two different political systems (Mc Gregor et al., 2017). In fact,
following the argument of Steffan and Venema (2020: 385), “cross-national comparative studies are needed to explore to what extent the use of the strategies of professionalised political communication in OCP´s differ between a party centred system and a candidate centred system”. It has been argued that comparative studies could uncover whether previous findings on political communication strategies in social media campaigning also are applicable in other countries with different political systems, such as two-party systems (Dumitrescu, 2010). The vast majority of authors acknowledge that social media campaigns would be even more professionalized in the context of candidate centred systems, resulting in higher levels of personalization, de-ideologization and negativity (Vliegenthart, 2012). Therefore, the present study aims at comparing two political systems’ use of strategies of professionalized political campaigning between a multiparty and a two-party system, by conducting a quantitative content analysis of textual and visual elements of online campaign posters (OCP´s) for the 2019 and 2020 Spanish and U.S. elections respectively. Hence, the leading research question of this master thesis will be as follows:
To what extent are the use of strategies of professionalized political campaigning (personalisation, de-ideologization and negative campaigning) in Online Campaign Posters (OCP) different between a party centred system and a candidate centred system?
This study adds to the current literature in several ways. First, it contributes with new empirical evidence of the professionalization of political communication. Second, drawing on Steffan and Venema´s (2020) finding, which showed that OCP´s are highly professionalized campaign tools, this study provides more theoretical evidence about the extent to what this medium indeed replicates strategies of professionalization of political campaigning. Third, the vast majority of studies analyzed campaign posters from one single platform (Bossetta, 2018).
Thus, considering the increasing use of other social media platforms, such as Instagram, the dataset used will not just be confined to a single platform but instead taking into consideration three of them: Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Furthermore, although campaign posters have been a central means of communication for Spanish (Anguita, 2019) and American parties (Wert, 2016; Benoit, 2019) to convince the electorate, to the best of my knowledge, it is the first comparative study shedding light on differences across political systems’ use of these strategies. Both countries represent clear examples of a party and a candidate centred system and it is expected a very interesting insight on how they incorporated the newer medium of OCP´s on their last elections.
The article proceeds according to the following structure. First, I will start by developing the concept of professionalization of political communication during the past decades. Moreover, the use of strategies of political communication in the new social media era will be examined. Next, I review my methodology and present the findings of the quantitative content analysis, in which a total number of 240 online campaign posters were studied.
The professionalization of political communication in the social media era
The concept of professionalization serves as a meaningful starting point to explore the development of political communication and to reflect how the circumstances for election campaigns have shifted considerably over the postwar period in Western democracies (Tenscher, 2013). Due to all these changes, patterns and features of campaign posters have been modified and, therefore, explicit assumptions can be formulated (Vliegenthart, 2012).
A large body of literature coincide that the shift to professionalized campaigning during the past six decades have been driven due to long-term changes in society and in politics, such as a decline in party identification, an increasing electoral volatility, an increasing party
competition and negative attention towards political opponents (Dalton et al., 2003). In light of political communication, Blumler and Kavanagh (1999), but also Norris (2000) and Gibson and Römmele (2001) distinguished three phases of political communication.
In the first age (until 1960), which constituted the times of premodern election campaigns, society was organized in clearly disguisable groups with different ideologies due to strong societal cleavages (Lijphart, 1999). There was a low electoral volatility and people voted for the party to which they were affiliated (Vliegenthart, 2012). In this era, election campaigns were short and parties reached voters mainly using partisan media and face-to-face communication between political actors and party affiliates (Gibson & Römmele, 2001). The second age (1960-1970), labeled as the modern election campaign era, also witnessed structural changes in the political process. Television became the main mass medium of political communication and election campaigns became more important (Blumler & Kavanagh, 1999).
While party loyalty was loosening, electoral volatility went up. This was the result of several modernization and secularization processes (Krouwel, 2003). With the appearance of the first spin doctors who advised and led political parties’ campaigns, party competition increased in importance (Brants & van Praag, 2006). In the third age (from 1990), a period defined by Blumler and Kavanagh (1999: 213) as “postmodern”, media played a dominant role in politics.
Increased levels of media abundance and competitive pressures resulted in blurred boundaries between entertainment and politics, and new “infotainment” shows emerged on television (Brants, 1998). In line with the second age, party competition was intensified even more as a consequence of increasing levels of swing voters, political detachment and the emergence of new parties.
In recent times, scholars have proposed a fourth phase of political campaigning (Vergeer et al., 2013; Mazzoleni, 2015; Enli, 2017; Magin et al., 2017). All of them argue that similar developments from the third phase have further evolved. The number of voters have
become even more dispersed, and trends of partisan dealignment and mediatization have been incremented (Blumler, 2014). Another concept used to define this era has been
“modernization” (Strömbäck & Kiousis, 2014), which, similarly, it also refers to both societal trends of partisan dealignment and media logic.
With the rise of social media platforms, many of the aforementioned developments have been further exacerbated, as politicians have found new ways to bypass the media and communicate directly with the audience. Social networks are also contributing to political personalization, as candidates post messages from their own personal accounts (Vliegenthart, 2012). In political campaigning, this have led to the emergence of newer mediums of political communication, such as online campaign posters (Bruns et al., 2015).
Until now, a wide range of terms have been introduced to describe the transformations mentioned above, including “professionalization” (Negrine et al., 2007; Esser, 2008),
“permanent campaigning” (Dumitrescu, 2012), “personalization” (Enli & Skogerbø, 2013;
Franssen & Rock, 2020) and “Americanization” (Cervi & Roca, 2016). However, many scholars coincide that “professionalization” is the term that best implicitly and explicitly approaches ongoing developments of political communication over time (Enli, 2017).
Thus, in view of the new digital environment, a suitable definition of professionalization must be formulated. Tenscher (2013) describes this process as political parties’ adaptation to partisan dealignment and the increasing importance of media logic, with regard to their campaign structures and their campaign strategies. Concerning campaign structures, a further professionalization has been identified due to the growing influence of social media experts, spindoctors, advertising agencies and consultants (Karlsen, 2013). With regard to campaign strategies, although de-professionalized features of social media campaigns in candidate centred systems, such as the U.S., have been highlighted by some authors (Kreiss
& Jasinski, 2016), professionalization is commonly described as a process leading to an acute
focus on the party head, limited focus on ideology and high levels of negativity towards the opponent (Vliegenthart, 2012). As a consequence, several scholars identified personalization, de-ideologization and negative campaigning as strategies of professionalized political communication in the context of offline campaigning (Holtz-Bacha, 2002; Schweitzer, 2008;
Vliegenthart, 2012). Recently, Steffan and Venema (2020) showed that a further professionalization of political communication is reflected as well in social media campaigning and in newer tools, such as online campaign posters.
The first strategy that has been shown to be replicated in social media campaigns is the increasing political personalization. Rahat and Sheafer (2007) define this concept as a procedure in which the importance of the political party as a group decreases, while the political weight of the party head and his/her media visibility in the political campaign increases over time. Moreover, a distinction can be made between a “centralized personalization of single leaders and a decentralized personalization of politicians who are not party leaders” (Steffan &
Venema, 2019: 269). This paper will be focused on centralized personalization as my interest is oriented towards the growing influence of top candidates in parties’ own social media networks. Several studies investigating personalization on online campaign posters during election campaigns revealed an increase of this strategy in countries with party centred systems such as Italy (Musella, 2014), The Netherlands (Vliegenthart, 2012), Austria (Hayek, 2016), France (Brizzi, 2018) and Germany (Steffan & Venema, 2020).
This study focuses on Spain and the US. On the one hand, Spain is a parliamentary monarchy, whose political system belongs to the Democratic-Corporatist model (Hallin &
Mancini, 2004) and is categorized within the multiparty system model. This system is based on the existence of a large number of parties all across the political spectrum. All parties have
the same chances to reach the presidency of the government, either separately or forming coalitions. It is more frequent in parliamentary systems than presidential systems (Orriols &
Cordero, 2016). Furthermore, recent studies corroborate that election campaigns in Spain have become highly professionalized. Virgili and associates (2014), in their comparative study of election campaigns between Spain and Germany, demonstrated a greater political personalization in Spanish media coverage. In this sense, the mediatization of politics has favored the expansion of political personalization and some Spanish authors have identified the excessive importance of the image of politicians as one of the distinctive features of Spanish political culture (Rico, 2009).
However, other scholars coincide that professionalization of political communication in Spain have evolved slowly (Berganza, 2008). Since the first democratic election held on 1977, a bipartisanship model has prevailed in the country maintaining its essential features: a system articulated by the confrontation between two dominant political forces and separated by a strong ideological cleavage line (Fernández Esquer, 2015). The Spanish society was strongly divided and this was also reflected in low levels of electoral volatility. Processes of modernization and professionalization in Spanish political parties did not occur until 2015, when a reconfiguration of the party system took place after the 12th legislative elections. A whole range of new parties emerged and a strong process of de-pillarization occurred (Sánchez Muñoz, 2017).
On the other hand, the United States is a constitutional federal republic. It represents the most prone example of a candidate centred electoral system (Shugart, 2001). Compared to a multiparty political system, a two-party system is made up of two large political formations, which generally are antagonistic on the political spectrum, and alternate in government excluding other political minorities. In all elections, the most voted party achieves the government of the nation and the other one assumes the opposition’s role to the government
(Anthony & Carl, 2019). In candidate centred systems, voters elect one or various candidates,
“and the order in which the candidates are elected from a party list is entirely determined by the number of personal votes they receive” (Söderlund, 2017: 517). Moreover, it is said that countries with political systems that are more focused on the candidate have a longer tradition of professionalization of political communication than party centred systems. Until now, no single study have analyzed strategies of political campaigning in a comparative way between political systems. However, some authors anticipated higher levels of personalization in countries with two-party systems (Vliegenthart, 2012; Steffan & Venema, 2020). Therefore, having discussed both political systems, one might expect a stronger political personalization in a candidate centred system. Hence, the following assumption will be tested:
H1. Online Campaign Posters are more likely to show (a) visual and (b) textual personalisation in a candidate centred system, such as the US, than in a party centred system, such as Spain.
In line with theory, a process of de-ideologization has occurred in social media campaigning as a result of an increasing political personalization (Garzia, 2011). Denzau and North (2000: 24) defined political ideologies as “shared frameworks of mental models that groups of individuals possess that provide both an interpretation of the environment and a prescription as to how that environment should be structured”. For instance, socialism, communism, nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, fascism, ecologism or feminism, among others, represent shared frameworks of mental models (Jost et al., 2009). In contrast, de- ideologization is described as “the politically committed retrieval of people's experiences beyond the ideological reference points of elite classes” (Malherbe, 2021: 304). Similarly, Holtz-Bacha (2002) developed the notion of de-ideologization as the disappearance of long-
established societal cleavages. The hiring of external political consultants by parties have also contributed to de-ideologization because, in these times, political campaigns are more sales- oriented than with clear ideological stances (Heywood, 2017). In this sense, there has been a strong shift in “party communication from ideology and more abstract values to a stronger focus on specific and concrete policy issues” (Vliegenthart, 2012: 139).
Previous studies have shown that, with the rise of social media, a trend of de- ideologization have occurred in political parties’ online communication during election campaigns. This was the case for countries with candidate centred systems such as the United Kingdom (Van Deth & Janssen, 1994) or Mexico (Moreno Álvarez, 2019). On the other hand, visual and textual representation of ideology in campaign posters of countries with multiparty systems have also decreased over time, although to a lesser extent. This was confirmed in studies conducted in Portugal (Strippoli, 2018), Czech Republic (Hornat, 2019) and Germany (Schweitzer, 2008; Steffan & Venema, 2020). It has been suggested that in countries with high levels of professionalization of political campaigning, such as the US, the degree of de- ideologization could be even greater (Vliegenthart, 2012). Therefore, the following hypothesis will be tested:
H2. Online Campaign Posters are more likely to show (a) visual and (b) textual de- ideologization in a candidate centred system, such as the US, than in a party centred system, such as Spain.
A third strategy of political campaigning deals with the increased negativity towards the political opponent. This is called negative campaigning and is a common strategy used by parties to distinguish from the opponent and to show how inappropriate other candidates are to
govern the country (Ceron & d´Adda, 2016). A proper definition is provided by Surlin and Gordon (1977: 93), as they perceive negative campaigning as “attacking the other candidate personally, the issues for which the other candidate stands, or the party of the other candidate”.
Similarly, but omitting the notion of the "attack", Lau and Pomper (2002: 48) refer to negative campaigning as “talking about the opponent´s accomplishments, programs or qualifications”
with the focus on highlighting the weaknesses of these attributes. Although there is controversy about the prevalence and intensity of negativity in today´s campaigns, attacking a political opponent is commonly associated with the use of negative and dirty terms (Lau & Rovner, 2009).
With the emergence of social media platforms, the opportunities for parties to go negative have been incremented due to the rapid interaction between users. This has allowed parties to react instantly to their political opponents (Auter & Fine, 2016). While parties make use of their own social media accounts to mobilize own supporters, at the same time, they also demobilize partisans of the opponent using negative campaigning. This was demonstrated by Hansen and Pedersen (2008) and Elmelund‐Præstekær (2008) after conducting studies in multiparty systems such as Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. In the same vein, López-Rabadán and Doménech-Fabregat (2021) recently showed that the possibilities offered by Instagram have allowed various Spanish political parties to strategically use this platform as a medium to generate an intense campaign of attacks against the political opponent.
By contrast, the use of negative campaigning in U.S. campaigns has a longer tradition.
The first remarkable example dated back from 1800 when both candidates John Adams and Thomas Jefferson launched a presidential race based on personal attacks, criticism, lies and pejorative language (Haselmayer, 2019). It has been proposed that in two-party systems, such as the U.S., with the focus on one single opponent, the degree of negative references in online
campaign posters could be even greater than in multiparty systems (Steffan & Venema, 2020).
So, consistent with the previous suggestion, the following assumption has been theorized:
H3. Online Campaign Posters are more likely to show (a) visual and (b) textual negative campaigning in a candidate centred system, such as the US, than in a party centred system, such as Spain.
To examine the proposed hypotheses and provide an empirical answer to the research question, I conducted a quantitative content analysis of visual and textual elements of online campaign posters (OCP) between a party and a candidate centred system. As mentioned above, the present study focuses on Spain and the US. With regard to online campaign posters, the past years have seen an extensive use of this communication tool in both Spanish (Anguita, 2019) and American parties (Wert, 2016; Benoit, 2019). Thus, the aim of this study was to compare and assess to what extent the use of strategies of professionalised political communication in OCP´s differed between both systems during their last election campaigns in 2019 (Spain) and 2020 (U.S.).
The research units of this content analysis are online campaign posters spread in social media by the two largest political parties in Spain and the United States. In line with the inherent characteristics of the U.S. political system, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were the parties selected for this study. On the other hand, the selection of the Spanish parties was based on those who had before elections the highest representation in the Spanish Parliament, which were Partido Socialista Obrero Español and Partido Popular.
In order to identify an online campaign poster, Steffan and Venema (2020: 374) developed three defining features. First, “they are spread through the parties’ official social media platforms, specifically through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter”; second “they do not
show solely a photograph, graphic or text, but also have a purposive design, such as the party logo or a slogan”; and finally, “only occur during the hot campaign phase”. According to Lee
& Campbell (2016), the hot campaign phase is defined as the period of time before elections in which parties officially launch their campaigns. In this study, only those OCP´s spread during the hot campaign phase were considered. These periods of time are usually defined by the Electoral Law of each country (Campbell, 2008). In Spain, it starts fifteen days prior to elections (Cervi & Roca, 2016) and after Labor Day in the U.S. (Campbell, 2008). In Spain, OCP´s spread between October 25th and November 8th 2019 were collected. In the U.S., although Labor Day is generally celebrated in early September, to ensure that both electoral periods had the same number of days, only those American posters released fifteen days before elections were collected (October 19th – November 3rd 2020).
Sample and data collection
The final sample consisted of 240 OCP´s. These were retrieved from the political parties’ official social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. In order to collect the data, the advanced search tool of each social media platform was used. The time period of each election campaign was entered to filter the results. After that, each party’s social media post was examined.
As can be observed in Table 1 (see Tables), a total of 60 posters were retrieved from each political party. Since OCP´s were collected from three social media platforms and considering that each party has an account on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, a total of twelve official parties’ social media accounts were studied. The number of posters collected from each party account on each platform was always the same (n = 20). If the party released more than twenty posters, a random selection was employed. Moreover, those posters repeated on more than one social network were discarded before the analysis and were coded only once.
One final consideration to note is that other type of content spread by parties’ official social media channels such as pictures, videos, reels or party announcements, which are commonly defined as infographics (Kalsnes, 2016), were discarded before data collection.
Moreover, political posters from non-official parties’ social media accounts, such as youth organizations or interest groups, posters from regional candidates or subleaders, event announcements and other election advertising materials such as flyers or brochures were also disregarded in this study.
The coding of the campaign posters was conducted by a single political communication master student at the University of Amsterdam, which is a Spanish native speaker with reasonable knowledge of Spanish and U.S. politics. The sample was saved in four different files. To facilitate the procedure, each file contained the campaign posters of each party.
To evaluate intercoder reliability, two more people coded a random sample of 80 posters. These coders were trained to follow a common codebook. To ensure an identical understanding of the measurement instrument, two coder-trainer tests were conducted before the analysis. After employing Krippendorff´s α (Krippendorff, 2013), I noticed solid reliability scores. Alpha values of the key variables are reported below (see Measurements subsection).
In this study, a total of eighteen variables were developed (see Appendix A). The political system functioned as the main independent variable and the strategies of professionalized political communication were the main dependent variables. To operationalize the political system, four categories were created (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Partido Popular, Democratic Party and Republican Party). The variable asked to identify each campaign poster with the corresponding party (Krippendorff´s α = 1.00).
To measure the strategies of professionalized political communication, I used six variables, and all of them had a binary distribution, indicating whether there was absence (0) or presence (1) of a specific strategy. The variables are constructed based on Steffan and Venema’s (2020) operationalization of the strategies of professionalization of political communication. In line with their operationalization, visual and textual elements of campaign posters were analyzed separately because pictures and text may be processed in a different manner and do not necessarily have to coincide. Vliegenthart (2012), on his longitudinal study of Dutch election campaign posters, insisted on the importance of taking into account both visual and textual elements when examining political parties’ communication because both levels may show opposite trends. For instance, a poster could be showing a pejorative visual reference of another candidate, without employing an explicit textual reference to the attack (Schill, 2012). In the next step, I proceed to explain how the strategies of professionalized political campaigning were operationalized.
For the Personalization strategy, two variables were created. The first one was Visual Personalization, which analyzed whether the top candidate of each party was shown in the picture (Krippendorff´s α = 0.88). The second one, Textual Personalization, assessed whether the text on the campaign poster was making any textual reference or mention to the political leader (Krippendorff´s α = 0.80). By showing pictures and the names of Spanish candidates Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Casado, Appendix B provide examples of posters showing visual and textual personalization.
The strategy De-ideologization, was also operationalized on a visual and a textual level.
The variable Visual De-ideologization asked whether any ideological symbol was depicted (Krippendorff´s α = 0.83). Ideological symbols were classified into three categories: national,
religious and political symbols. For instance, the U.S. or the Spanish national flag was coded as a national symbol; the depiction of a crescent was identified as a religious symbol; and the visual representation of a socialist or a feminist symbol was classified as political. Two examples of OCP´s displaying national symbols can be found in Appendix C. The fourth variable was Textual De-ideologization and measured whether different political ideologies were textually mentioned on the poster (Krippendorff´s α = 0.90). Nine answer categories were developed for this variable. For instance, if grammatical forms such as “liberalism”,
“socialism”, “conservatism”, “environmentalism” or “feminism” were written on the poster, this variable was coded as present. Appendix D provides an example of a poster showing textual references to political ideologies.
Finally, the variable Negative Campaigning assessed the absence or presence of negativity towards other candidates on the poster. Drawing on Lau and Rovner’s (2009) definition, negative campaign posters are understood as the representation of pictures and/or mentions of politicians from other political formations in a negative context. The main aim is to show the opponent´s weaknesses by emphasizing his/her softness and portraying the opponent as dishonest, corrupt, insecure, untrustworthy, or as evil or dangerous to the nation.
On the one hand, Visual negative campaigning indicated whether the image was showing visual references to different parties and/or candidates other than the one that was advertised (Krippendorff´s α = 0.89). On the other hand, the variable Textual negative campaigning measured whether the poster was showing textual references to political parties and/or politicians other than the one advertised (Krippendorff´s α = 0.94). For instance, the Republican Party issued a poster including a picture of Joe Biden and his name in Appendix E.
To test my hypotheses (H1-H3), several logistic regression analyses were carried out. I conducted one analysis for each of the strategies measuring the professionalization of political communication in campaign posters. Before the analysis, each of the variables measuring personalization, de-ideologization and negative campaigning was tested to confirm that the assumption of the linearity of the logit was not violated.
As mentioned, the political system functioned as the main independent variable. Before the analysis, this variable was recoded into a new dummy variable (1 = Party Centred System;
2 = Candidate Centred System). The party system was the category entered on each regression model. Whereas a positive effect determined the likelihood of a specific strategy to be present in the party system, a negative effect suggested a smaller probability of a strategy to be present in the Spanish multiparty system. Furthermore, in order to ascertain any systematic differences across parties within political systems, one political party from each country was included in the model.
First, H1a suggested differences between a party and a candidate centred system regarding visual personalization. Specifically, it was expected to find a higher personalization in the U.S. posters than in the Spanish posters. All in all, the results showed a considerable presence of visual personalization (72%) in both countries, as only 28% of campaign posters did not display an image of the top candidate (see Figure 1). To test H1a, a logistic regression was performed to ascertain the effects of party system and political parties on the likelihood of finding a higher visual personalization in a candidate centred system. Overall, the logistic regression model was statistically significant, χ2 (3) = 27.42, p < .001. The model explained 26.0% (Nagelkerke R2) of the variance in visual personalization and correctly classified 76.0%
of cases. The odds of using visual personalization in a party centred system was 6.65 times
higher than in a candidate centred system, Exp (B) = 6.65, 95% CI [2.24, 19.76]. As shown in Table 2, the increased likelihood of finding more visual personalization in a party centred system was statistically significant, b = 1.89, SE = 0.56, Wald = 11.61, p < .001. Therefore, H1a is not supported. Besides, one systematic difference across parties within the U.S. political system can be observed. The Democratic Party was 3.36 times more likely to display visual personalization on their campaign posters than those from the Republican Party during the last election campaign in 2020, Exp (B) = 3.36, 95% CI [1.23, 9.21]. Table 2 demonstrates that the association between the increasing visual personalization in the Democrats campaign posters was statistically significant, b = 1.21, SE = 0.51, Wald = 5.56, p = .018. This might be explained to the fact that the DP focused their campaign to party head Joe Biden, showing him in a vast majority of posters.
Prediction of visual and textual personalization in Online Campaign Posters (OCP´s).
Visual Personalization Textual Personalization
B SE Wald Exp (B) B SE Wald Exp (B)
Constant -0.318 0.329 0.939 0.727 -0.773* 0.349 4.908 0.462
Political System (Party System)
1.894*** 0.556 11.605 6.646 -0.802 0.568 1.993 0.448
PSOE a 1.165 0.856 1.852 3.207 0.071 0.636 0.013 1.074
DP b 1.212* 0.514 5.556 3.361 0.838 0.501 2.796 2.311
Pseudo R2 0.260 0.117
Notes. Logistic regression analyses. B = Unstandardized regression coefficient; SE = standard error; OR = odds ratio. PSOE = Partido Socialista Obrero Español; DP = Democratic Party.
N = 137
aReference category is Partido Popular.
bReference category is Republican Party.
*p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001.
Second, H1b stated that parties in a candidate centred system are more likely to show textual personalization on their campaign posters than parties from a party centred system.
Overall, the strategy textual personalization was largely absent in both political systems, as only 29% of campaign posters had in-text references to the party head (see Figure 1). In the same vein as the visual level, the logistic regression model examining the effects of party system and political parties on the likelihood of finding a higher textual personalization in a candidate centred system was significant, χ2 (3) = 11.77, p = .008. The model explained 11.7%
(Nagelkerke R2) of the variance in textual personalization and correctly classified 71.5% of cases. However, the political system was unrelated to textual personalization. Spanish and American parties did not differ in their likelihood of displaying textual references of their political leaders, b = -0.80, SE = 0.57, Wald = 1.99, p = .158. As compared to the U.S. system, the Spanish multiparty system had 55.2% lower odds of using mentions to their top candidates, Exp (B) = 0.45, 95% CI [0.15, 1.37]. Thus, H1b cannot be supported.
Third, H2a posited that OCP´s are more likely to show visual de-ideologization in a candidate centred system than in a party centred system. Overall, the results showed an increasing visual de-ideologization trend in both political systems. The vast majority of campaign posters (82%) did not display any visual ideological reference (see Figure 1).
Unexpectedly, the logistic regression model predicting the likelihood of finding a higher visual de-ideologization in a candidate centred system from party system and political parties was not statistically significant, χ2 (3) = 0.98, p = .806. The model explained 0.7% (Nagelkerke R2) of the variance in visual de-ideologization and correctly classified 82.1% of cases. Consequently, although OCP´s were 1.38 times more likely to show visual de-ideologization in a party centred system than in a candidate system, no significant relation was observed between political system and visual de-ideologization, b = 0.32, SE = 0.47, Wald = 0.48, p = .488. Therefore, H2a is not supported (see Table 4 below).
Next, H2b suggested differences between a party and a candidate centred system regarding textual de-ideologization. Specifically, it was expected to find a higher textual de- ideologization in the U.S. posters compared to the Spanish posters. Similarly, an increasing de- ideologization trend on the textual level was also found in both countries, as only 3% of posters showed textual ideological references (see Figure 1). To test H2b, a logistic regression was performed to ascertain the effects of party system and political parties on the likelihood of finding a higher textual de-ideologization in a candidate centred system. Overall, the logistic regression model was significant, χ2 (3) = 11.32, p < .010. The model explained 19.9%
(Nagelkerke R2) of the variance in textual de-ideologization and correctly classified 97.1% of cases. However, although the odds of using textual de-ideologization in a party centred system was 2.64 times higher than in a candidate centred system, no significant relation was observed between political system and textual de-ideologization. Campaign posters released in Spain were neither more nor less likely to employ textual references to ideologies than OCP´s released in the U.S., b = 0.97, SE = 0.86, Wald = 1.28, p = .258. Thus, H2b is not supported (see Table 4 below).
The last set of hypotheses (H3a – H3b) dealt with differences between a multiparty and a two-party system concerning negative campaigning. All in all, campaign posters displayed remarkable low levels of visual and textual negativity in both political systems. The presence of visual and textual references to other political opponents was only shown in 12% and 15%
of campaign posters respectively (see Figure 1). Next, according to H3a, it was expected to find a higher visual negativity against other candidates in OCP´s spread in a candidate centred system than in a party centred system. To test H3a, a logistic regression was performed to ascertain the effects of party system and political parties on the likelihood of finding a higher visual negativity in a candidate centred system. Overall, the logistic regression model was statistically significant, χ2 (3) = 28.02, p < .001. The model explained 21.1% (Nagelkerke R2)
of the variance in visual negative campaigning and correctly classified 87.9% of cases. As expected, the results displayed in Table 3 demonstrates that OCP´s were more likely to show images of other political opponents in a candidate system than in a party centred system, b = - 1.63, SE = 0.54, Wald = 8.99, p = .003. In comparison to the U.S. system, the Spanish multiparty system had 80.4% lower odds of using images of other political opponents, Exp (B)
= 0.20, 95% CI [0.07, 0.57]. Therefore, H3a is supported. Furthermore, one systematic difference across parties within the U.S. political system has been found. As compared to the Republican Party showing images of candidate Joe Biden, the Democratic Party had 84.6%
lower odds of displaying images of candidate Donald Trump on their campaign posters, Exp (B) = 0.15, 95% CI [0.05, 0.49]. Table 3 demonstrates that the association between the decreasing visual negativity in the Democrats campaign posters was statistically significant, b
= -1.87, SE = 0.59, Wald = 10.14, p = .001. Hence, Republicans employed the strategy visual negative campaigning to a greater extent than Democrats.
Prediction of visual and textual negative campaigning in Online Campaign Posters (OCP´s).
Visual Negative Campaigning Textual Negative Campaigning
B SE Wald Exp (B) B SE Wald Exp (B)
Constant -0.769** 0.278 7.680 0.463 -0.693* 0.274 6.406 0.500
(Party System) -1.629** 0.543 8.987 0.196 -0.693 0.423 2.682 0.500
PSOE a -1.680 1.111 2.284 0.186 -2.691* 1.059 6.460 0.068
DP b -1.870** 0.587 10.139 0.154 -1.946*** 0.586 11.044 0.143 Nagelkerke
Pseudo R2 0.211 0.206
Notes. Logistic regression analyses. B = Unstandardized regression coefficient; SE = standard error; OR = odds ratio. PSOE = Partido Socialista Obrero Español; DP = Democratic Party.
N = 240
aReference category is Partido Popular.
bReference category is Republican Party.
*p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001.
Finally, H3b posited that parties in a candidate centred system are more likely to mention the political opponent on their campaign posters than parties from a party centred system. To test H3b, a logistic regression was performed to ascertain the effects of party system and political parties on the likelihood of finding a higher textual negativity in a candidate centred system. Overall, the regression model was statistically significant, χ2 (3) = 30.34, p <
.001. The model explained 20.6% (Nagelkerke R2) of the variance in textual negative campaigning and correctly classified 84.6% of cases. Surprisingly, Table 3 shows that the political system is unrelated to textual negative campaigning, b = -0.69, SE = 0.42, Wald = 2.68, p = .102. In other words, the Spanish and the American political system did not differ in their likelihood of displaying the names of the political opponent. Even though the party centred system had a lower odds of mentioning political opponents on campaign posters than the U.S. candidate system, Exp (B) = 0.50, 95% CI [0.22, 1.15], H3b is not supported.
Moreover, although no significant difference was found between political systems, two systematic differences across parties were observed. On the one hand, the PSOE in Spain was less likely to show textual negative campaigning on their campaign posters than PP, b = -2.69, SE = 1.06, Wald = 6.46, p = .011. As compared to PP, the PSOE campaign posters had 93.2%
lower odds of showing textual negativity, Exp (B) = 0.07, 95% CI [0.01, 0.54]. On the other hand, textual negative campaigning was less likely to happen in OCP´s released by Democrats than by Republicans, b = -1.95, SE = 0.59, Wald = 11.04, p < .001. As shown in Table 3, the Democratic Party had a lower odds of mentioning Donald Trump on campaign posters than Republicans mentioning their political opponent Joe Biden, Exp (B) = 0.14, 95% CI [0.05, 0.45]. Hence, both the Spanish PP and the American Republican Party, with a more conservative ideology, used textual negative campaigning to a greater extent than parties with a less conservative ideology.
Discussion & conclusion
The aim of this study was to examine differences between a party and a candidate centred system with regards to their use of strategies of professionalized political communication in the newer tool of online campaign posters during the last 2019 Spanish and 2020 U.S. election campaigns.
First, regarding the use of personalization, surprising opposite trends were observed between the visual and the textual level. While a party centred system was more likely to use personalization on the visual level, textual personalization was slightly more common to occur in the U.S. candidate system (see Figure 2). For the lack of consistency between levels, Walter and Vliegenthart (2010) suggested that in more professionalized political systems, such as the U.S., campaign strategists may have found redundant to include images and textual references of the party leader in the same poster. Overall, this pattern of results are inconsistent with theoretical assumptions suggesting higher levels of visual and textual personalization in two- party systems (Steffan & Venema, 2020). Despite the extensive use of personalization on campaign posters, previous studies have shown that the extent to what this strategy is used depends on other factors such as a preference to show personalization in other parties’
communication channels like television coverage or newspaper articles (Balmas et al., 2014;
Filimonov et al., 2016). In fact, Reinemann and Wilke (2007) revealed higher levels of personalization in newspapers compared to campaign posters. Hence, due to the fact that our study is confined to a single medium, future research has to investigate other channels for party communication to assess whether differences exist across systems’ use of professionalized political campaigning strategies.
Second, the Spanish and the U.S. system did not show a clear upwards nor downwards trend regarding de-ideologization. Both systems employed similar levels of de-ideologization on the visual and on the textual level (see Figure 2). Unexpectedly, the findings are contrary to
previous assumptions suggesting stronger trends of de-ideologization in candidate centred systems (Vliegenthart, 2012; Strippoli, 2018; Hornat, 2019). Regardless of the political system, both countries have shown a decreasing relevance of ideological references on their campaign posters. Consistent with Garzia (2011), the increasing relevance of personalization in social media campaigning have resulted in a process of de-ideologization. Previous empirical studies showed that the increasing influence of external consultants and the hiring of social media experts worldwide have led to de-ideologized political communication (Bruns et al., 2015).
This idea was further supported by the finding that modern election campaigns are more sales- oriented and less attached to ideologies and abstract ideas (Heywood, 2017). Thus, considering that de-ideologization was a widely used communication strategy on OCP´s from both countries, the most relevant implication to emerge from this finding is that newer campaign tools emerged in the social media era are indeed replicating strategies of professionalized political communication (Steffan & Venema, 2020). So, it seems reasonable to assume that OCP´s can be characterized as highly professionalized.
Third, with respect to the use of negativity on campaign posters, striking overall low levels were observed in both political systems (see Figure 2). Nevertheless, the U.S. two-party system was more likely to make use of this strategy, although the difference was only statistically significant on the visual level. A suitable support for both findings can be found in previous studies conducted in different European multiparty systems. All them revealed as well decreasing levels of negativity on campaign posters. This can be attributed to the fact that, in all these countries, parties are less inclined to attack their opponents as they often need to form coalition governments (Hansen & Pedersen, 2008; Vliegenthart, 2012; Johansson, 2014). Thus, attacking a potential coalition ally might not be an option contemplated by campaign strategists. Furthermore, as previous research theorized regarding different political systems’
use of negative campaigning, in two-party systems, such as the U.S., with the focus on one
single opponent, the degree of negative references in online campaign posters was likely to be more intense than in multiparty systems (Vliegenthart, 2012; Haselmayer, 2019; Steffan &
Venema, 2020). Hence, this assumption has been confirmed in this study at least on the visual level.
All in all, three broader implications can be formulated from the findings presented above. First, because most of the hypotheses were not supported, is not possible to conclude that the Spanish and the U.S. political system differ with regards to their use of strategies of professionalization in campaign posters. Therefore, theoretical assumptions suggesting higher levels of professionalization of political communication in candidate centred systems have to be reconsidered. Second, the opposite outcomes observed with respect to the personalization strategy suggest the need to develop a theory in which the visual and the textual level can be analyzed as different elements of political parties’ communication (Boomgaarden et al., 2016).
According to Grabe and Bucy (2009), specially the visual level has been largely ignored in the study of political communication, and it is said to play a key role in the interaction between politicians and citizens. Third, the findings also showed significant differences across parties within the same political system. For instance, Republicans were more likely to go negative on their campaign posters than Democrats. A similar trend occurred in Spain, in which a more conservative party, such as PP, displayed more visual negativity on their posters than PSOE.
However, the aim of this paper was to investigate differences across political systems and not between parties, and due to space limitations, results will not be further discussed. This demonstrates that future research needs to consider differences across parties in order to examine other factors that might be influencing the use of strategies of professionalized political campaigning.
In the next step, shortcomings of this study are addressed. The main one is the limited access to data. To collect the sample, the advanced search tool of Instagram, Facebook and
Twitter was employed. OCP´s were retrieved after using each election campaign period as the filter. However, even though each party´s social media post was examined, occasionally, the results showed posters that did not correspond to the entered date period and some posters did not show the exact date. It is likely that some biased posters released on other dates were included in the sample. If other types of filters had been used, such as keywords, more precise results could have been obtained. This makes it difficult to generalize the findings.
Furthermore, a second limitation addresses the selection of Spain as a case study. Still, the country may not represent the best example of a fully consolidated party system due to a strong bipartisanship model, which prevailed until 2015, when a reconfiguration of the party system took place with the emergence of a wide range of new parties. This may have also distorted the findings. Thus, future research could replicate the same study by including long-established party systems. Then, it will be possible to assess if the Spanish case is conventional or unique.
A final limitation highlights the circumstances in which each election campaign was held. In contrast to the 2019 Spanish campaign, the 2020 U.S. campaign took place the same year in which a global pandemic shook the world´s population with dire consequences. This may have also influenced how U.S. parties tailored their campaigns, and likely having an effect on the current trends of professionalization of political communication.
Despite these limitations, the present study has provided a detailed analysis about how two different political systems integrated the newer tool of OCP´s in their last election campaigns. Although my findings suggest no significant differences between a party and a candidate centred system regarding the use of strategies of professionalized political communication in campaign posters, the current research could stimulate further investigation on this area. Nevertheless, the increasing trends of personalization and de-ideologization showed in this study, contributes to a growing body of evidence confirming that OCP´s replicate strategies of professionalized political campaigning.
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