Chat with us, powered by LiveChat How could/would candidates fund their elections if outside group funding was not allowed? 2. Should outside funding such as PAC’s be allowed? 3. Does outside funding make a difference - Writingforyou

How could/would candidates fund their elections if outside group funding was not allowed? 2. Should outside funding such as PAC’s be allowed? 3. Does outside funding make a difference

1. How could/would candidates fund their elections if outside group funding was not allowed?

2. Should outside funding such as PAC's be allowed?

3. Does outside funding make a difference in political races?

Campaign Communications in U.S. Congressional Elections


Source: The American Political Science Review , August 2009, Vol. 103, No. 3 (August 2009), pp. 343-366

Published by: American Political Science Association

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American Political Science Review Vol. 103, No. 3 August 2009 doi:10.1017/S0003055409990037

Campaign Communications in U.S. Congressional Elections JAMES N. DRUCKMAN Northwestern University

MARTIN J. KIFER High Point University MICHAEL PARKIN Oberlin College

lectoral campaigns are the foundation of democratic governance; yet scholarship on the content of campaign communications remains underdeveloped. In this paper, we advance research on

* J U.S. congressional campaigns by integrating and extending extant theories of campaign commu nication. We test the resulting predictions with a novel dataset based on candidate Web sites over three election cycles. Unlike television advertisements or newspaper coverage, Web sites provide an unmediated, holistic, and representative portrait of campaigns. We find that incumbents and challengers differ across a broad range of behavior that reflects varying attitudes toward risk, that incumbents' strategies depend on the competitiveness of the race, and that candidates link negative campaigning to other aspects of their rhetorical strategies. Our efforts provide researchers with a basis for moving toward a more complete understanding of congressional campaigns.

Electoral campaigns are a defining feature of democratic polities. Yet scholarship on electoral campaigns, particularly on the content of cam

paign communications, remains disjointed. The field has not changed very much since Riker's (1996, 4) description over a decade ago: "we have very little knowledge about the rhetorical content of campaigns, which is, however, their principal feature … the fact remains that we know very little about what to say in campaigns?but this is what both political scientists and candidates want to know." Shortcomings are par ticularly acute in the United States for nonpresiden tial campaigns. "From reading our literature," notes Perloff (2002, 621), "you would assume that the only campaigns in America are for the presidency."

In what follows, we advance research on campaigns, focusing on communication in U.S. congressional cam paigns. We begin by offering a framework for studying campaign communication that integrates and extends prior work. The analysis focuses on the extent to which candidates take risks or play it safe in their campaign strategies. We test expectations from the framework

James N. Druckman is Associate Professor of Political Science and

Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, 601 University Place, Evanston, IL 60208 (druckman@

Martin J. Kifer is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Di rector of the Survey Research Center, High Point University, 833

Montlieu Avenue, High Point, NC 27262 ([email protected]). Michael Parkin is Assistant Professor of Politics, Oberlin

College, 10 N. Professor Street, Oberlin, OH 44074 (Michael. [email protected]).

We thank Nora Paul and Brian Southwell for critical guid ance in constructing our original coding framework, Gary Jacobson for providing candidate background data, and the dozens of individuals who assisted in data collection. We also thank Lonna Atkeson, Amber Wichowsky, and many others for providing advice. We owe a special debt of gratitude to the APSR's reviewers and editors for insightful guidance that fun damentally shaped all aspects of the paper. Support for this re search was provided by the University of Minnesota McKnight Land-Grant Professorship, Northwestern University's AT&T Re search Scholar Fund, and, for the survey of website designers, the National Science Foundation (SES-0822819 and SES-0822819). Au thors' names are listed in alphabetical order.

with new data based on candidate Web sites over time, which offer an unmediated, holistic, and representa tive portrait of campaigns. The view from these data significantly differs from that of previous studies that rely on advertising and newspaper stories to study can didate behavior. Our efforts provide researchers with a foundation for moving toward a more complete un derstanding of congressional campaigns.


In many ways, the literature on congressional cam paigns is progressive and wide-ranging. Scholars de vote considerable attention to distinct topics, such as going negative, issue ownership, and position-taking (Franklin 1991; Lau and Pomper 2004; Petrocik 1996). They also have identified important determinants of campaign strategy?most notably, showing how com petition and incumbency influence rhetorical choices (Kahn and Kenney 1999; Trent and Friedenberg 2008).

We aim to bring these various strands of the literature together (e.g., work on negativity and issue owner ship) while also generating additional insights into cam paigns' rhetorical choices. We start with a set of widely agreed-upon premises about congressional campaign behavior, from which we deduce empirical predictions.

First, a primary purpose of campaign rhetoric is to es tablish the criteria on which voters base their decisions.

Campaigns attempt to do this by emphasizing or high lighting their preferred criteria. Evidence on this point comes from an array of literatures, including work on priming (Miller and Krosnick 1996), issue ownership (Petrocik 1996), heresthetics (Riker 1996), campaigns (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Schattschnei der 1960), and political polling (Druckman, Jacobs, and Ostermeier 2004; Jacobs and Shapiro 1994). Second, when it comes to congressional elections, voters tend to base their decisions on incumbency, issues, candi dates' personal features, and/or party (Druckman 2004; Niemi and Weisberg 1993, 99; Rahn et al. 1990). It follows from these two premises that campaigns will


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Campaign Communications in U.S. Congressional Elections August 2009

emphasize incumbency, issues, personal features, and/or partisanship, depending on which of these cri teria they wish voters to use.

Third, half a century of voting research shows that voters pay scant attention to campaign rhetoric, and base their decisions on a subset of accessible consider

ations (Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Kinder 1998; Zaller 1992). Fourth, in congressional elections, incumbency serves as a highly accessible basis of vote choice; all else constant, voters favor incumbents (Gronke 2000, 140-41). This manifests itself in the well-known ben efit from incumbency that provides incumbents with up to a 10-percentage-point advantage (Abramowitz, Alexander, and Gunning 2006; Ansolabehere and Snyder 2004, 487). The incumbency advantage stems, in part, from three particular candidate characteristics: voters find incumbents appealing because they pos sess experience in office, are familiar (e.g., have ties to the district), and have provided benefits for the dis trict or state (e.g., organizing events concerning a lo cal issue, casework, pork-barrel projects) (e.g., Fiorina 1989; Gronke 2000; Jacobson 2004). These assumptions imply that incumbents will emphasize experience, fa

miliarity, and benefits, and that candidates who are not advantaged?i.e. challengers?have an incentive to (a) induce voters to attend to rhetoric and (b) use the rhetoric to cause voters to base their decisions on cri

teria other than incumbency. Our final premise concerns ways in which candidates

motivate voters to attend to rhetoric. One well-known

approach is to employ negative language (i.e., "go neg ative"). Evidence on the attention-grabbing nature of negativity comes from political psychology research (Druckman and McDermott 2008; Marcus, Newman, and MacKuen 2000), as well as a long line of work in psychology showing that individuals pay more atten tion and give more weight to negative than to positive information (e.g., people attend more when told of 5% unemployment than when told of 95% employ ment) (Baumeister et al. 2001; Wason 1959).1 Another way to stimulate attention that has become relevant in recent years is to engage voters by using new media technologies (Buey 2004). This includes, for example, allowing Web site visitors to adjust content and/or in terpersonally communicate with the campaign and/or other voters (e.g., message boards, forums, live chats, interactive blogs). Just as with negativity, extant re search shows that allowing interaction stimulates atten tion and information-seeking behavior (e.g., Southwell and Lee 2004, 645).

From these premises, we deduce a set of predictions. First, compared to incumbents, challengers will employ significantly more negative rhetoric and provide more opportunities for voters to engage with the campaign (i.e., through interactive Internet technologies). The goal is to induce voters to attend to new information (also see Kahn and Kenney 1999, 2004). Second, com pared to incumbents, challengers will put significantly more emphasis on issues, personal features, and party

1 Campaigns also appear to recognize the value of negative informa tion in prompting attention and affecting voters (e.g., Kern 1989).

affiliation. They will do so in an attempt to shift vot ers' focus away from incumbency towards alternative criteria (see, e.g., Groseclose 2001). Issue strategies in clude emphasizing or priming issues that advantage the candidate (e.g., issues "owned" by the candidate's party), stating unambiguous issue positions that en able voters to evaluate the candidate, and publicizing endorsements from policy-oriented groups that voters can use as issue shortcuts (Downs 1957; Lupia and

McCubbins 1998; Sniderman, Brody, and Tetlock 1991, 93-120). Strategies focusing on personal features in clude discussing leadership, competence, and empathy (e.g., Fenno 1978; Funk 1999; Kinder 1986), as well as

making reference to polls that demonstrate the candi date's viability and standing in the public's eyes (Lau and Redlawsk 2006).

Our third hypothesis is that, compared to chal lengers, incumbents will put significantly more em phasis on experience in public office, familiarity, and providing district or state benefits; as mentioned, these factors underlie the incumbent's advantage. A caveat to this prediction is that safe incumbents have little incentive to campaign actively. Incumbents enjoy an inherent advantage and, all else constant, prefer that voters do not pay attention to campaign rhetoric. In noncompetitive races?where voters often ignore the campaign (e.g., Kahn and Kenney 1999,182-83)?safe incumbents will opt to be silent on the campaign trail, refusing to engage in active advocacy (for fear of ap pearing insecure about the campaign) (Jacobson 2004, 97; Trent and Friedenberg 2008, 100). In this case, in cumbents will not necessarily put more emphasis than challengers on incumbency factors. As a campaign be comes increasingly competitive, however, incumbents have little choice but to enter the fray and increase the relative emphasis on their advantages, particularly aspects of incumbency.

Our predictions echo extant work by identifying incumbency-challenger status as a critical determi nant of campaign behavior over a range of strategies (Jacobson 2004, 91-98; Latimer 2007; Trent and Friedenberg 2008; 86-118) with competition playing a moderating role (Kahn and Kenney 1999; 93-97). As will soon be clear, our predictions also extend to a broad range of strategies that either are treated within distinct frameworks (e.g., going negative and issue ownership) or are not widely studied (e.g., the use of polls, endorsements, partisanship, personal feature emphasis, aspects of incumbency) (Lin 2004). Moreover, there is an underlying dynamic that we

believe ties our predictions together. The distinction between incumbent and challenger strategies amounts to variation in risk-taking (also see, e.g., Kahn and

Kenney 1999, 75-76; Lau and Pomper 2004, 31-32). Challenger strategies have less certain, higher vari ance outcomes. For example, going negative?which

2 The behavior of open seat candidates likely depends on other fac tors (see Jacobson 2004, 98-99), including the candidate's ability to tie himself or herself to the incumbent, district partisanship, and the candidate's standing in the race. We will later explore some of these dynamics.


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American Political Science Review Vol. 103, No. 3

challengers do to stimulate attention?entails some risk; many voters disdain negativity (Geer 2006, 1-2;

Mark 2006) and its effect remains "uncertain" (Lau and Pomper 2004, 74). Similarly, utilizing interactive

Web technologies introduces substantial risk because candidates lose message control, with users choos ing what to view (Chadwick 2006, 8; Eveland and

Dunwoody 2002). Risk dynamics also exist with the content of mes

sages. Incumbents emphasize qualities?experience, familiarity, and district benefits?that most voters fa vor, and that very likely benefit incumbents. Chal lengers, in contrast, highlight criteria that may or

may not advantage them. For example, offering pre cise issue positions may alienate some voters (Page 1978), providing endorsements can backfire (Lupia and

McCubbins 1998,60-61), and introducing personal fea tures may, in the end, favor the incumbent (e.g., dis cussing leadership). Similarly, partisan emphasis could sway, alienate, or have no effect on leaners, whereas emphasizing partisan-owned issues could shape vote preferences, have no impact, or even deter voters who care about other issues (such as leaners or voters from the other party). In sum, risk constitutes a latent fac tor that links our predictions?challengers who must overcome the incumbency hurdle engage in signifi cantly more risky behavior. This portrayal coheres with

McDermott, Fowler, and Smirnov's (2008, 346) evo lutionary theory of decision making that posits that "when political… survival is threatened, [politicians] appear much more likely to engage in risky actions…." It also provides a generalizable portrait of behavior, one that we will empirically explore in what follows.


A central challenge for work on campaigns concerns the identification of an appropriate source of data. Lau and Pomper (2004, 133-34) explain, "Campaigns are not simple, in practice or analysis … data?in partic ular, on the nature of the campaign itself?are much harder to come by" (also see Lipinski 2004, 9; Simon 2002, 94). Ideally, the data should be unmediated (i.e., directly from the campaign), complete (i.e., covering a full range of rhetorical strategies), and representative of the population of campaigns. We submit that candidate campaign Web sites

uniquely meet these criteria. First, Web sites are un mediated. Even when a campaign hires a consulting firm to help construct its Web site, it is the cam paign that determines the site's content (Ireland and Nash 2001, 60-61). This contrasts with news media coverage of campaigns (e.g., newspapers), on which some prior work relies (e.g., Lau and Pomper 2004; Sigelman and Buell 2003). Lipinski (2004,10) explains, candidates' "abilities to communicate through the mass media vary significantly [depending on] relations with local journalists_Therefore any analysis of media coverage will not provide an accurate measure of the messages that [candidates] are attempting to communi cate. Because of the problems associated with studying

mediated communication, it is essential to examine di rect methods_"

Second, Web sites offer as holistic or complete a portrait of campaign strategy as is available. A "campaign goes well beyond its televised politi cal advertisements_ Candidates engage in many activities?they give speeches, conduct rallies, dis tribute literature, and meet with local opinion leaders, editors, and other elites to seek endorsements (Shaw 1999)_To examine the effects of the campaign more broadly, we need a more comprehensive view beyond political advertisements" (Lau and Pomper 2004,134). On their Web sites, campaigns can post copious infor mation, including copies of advertisements, speeches, or other material (Ireland and Nash 2001, 60-61). As a result, a campaign Web site potentially captures the aggregation of campaign communications that reflect a campaign's overall rhetorical strategy. This differs from speeches or television advertisements that require can didates to choose brief snippets of their overall mes sage; candidates cannot possibly incorporate the full range of their rhetorical strategies (e.g., references to endorsements, polls, various issues, personal features).3

Third, virtually all congressional campaigns launch Web sites, which are critical for capturing a repre sentative sample of the population of congressional campaigns. In contrast, many House candidates and some noncompetitive Senate candidates fail to pro duce television advertisements (Goldstein and Rivlin 2005,16; Kahn and Kenney 1999,34).4 Similarly, major newspapers spend little time covering House races and noncompetitive Senate races. As a result, studies that rely on advertisements or media coverage use biased samples that often exclude House campaigns and less competitive (or less well-funded) Senate races. In the next section, we empirically demonstrate just how bi ased advertisement and newspaper coverage is, relative to Web sites.5

To assess the validity of our claim that Web sites capture the aggregation of campaign communication aimed at voters in general (e.g., the median voter), we conducted a survey of individuals involved in the design of congressional campaign Web sites during the 2008 campaign (N= 137). We provide details of the survey in Appendix A. Here we focus on the most telling results, many of which are consistent with what Stromer-Galley et al. (2003) report from a similar survey in 2002-3. We asked site designers to rate the priority of sev

eral groups of voters as Web site target audiences;

3 Indicative of the limitations of using television advertisements to capture the range of rhetorical campaign strategy is that the Wis consin Advertising Project (; accessed January 2009) does not code for many of the rhetorical features that are evident on Web sites.

4 We base this claim on what is available from the Wisconsin Adver

tising Project.

5 We do not mean to minimize the importance of studying televi sion advertisements and media coverage, particularly for research focused on the effects of mass communication on voters. Rather, our

point concerns using these media as unbiased measures of overall campaign strategy.


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Campaign Communications in U.S. Congressional Elections August 2009

FIGURE 1. Web Site Visitor Priority and Visit Frequency

? ^ 5g ?~ c

1 *St 4 ?? 2 tt 3 o a*

?< 2

621 6.10 <115> (1.24)

I I "339" (1.68) 4.98 5.02

(2.18) (1.55)

H 1 ii

4 95 4.89 , (1-74) (1.56)

4.80 4.78

Voters In general Undecided voters Journalists

I Priority Visit frequency

Highly engaged Supportive voters voters


Supportive activists


I N for priority ? 124; N for visits ? 114

we measured this on a seven-point scale with higher scores indicating increased priority. Respondents also rated their perception of how often an average mem ber of each group visited the site, on a seven-point scale with higher scores indicating more frequent vis its. The results, which we present in Figure 1, show that those involved in the creation of the sites view "voters in general" and "undecided voters" as the pri

mary target audiences. These two groups register signif icantly higher priority scores than all other groups (e.g., comparing "undecided voters" to "journalists," gives im = 3.86, p < .01 for a two-tailed test). This matches Stromer-Galley et al.'s (2003) aforementioned survey, which also finds that "undecided voters" were the top rated audience.

Interestingly, the respondents also recognize that "voters in general" and "undecided voters" visit less frequently than all other groups. Instead, they believe "highly engaged voters" access the site most often (also see Democracy Online Project 1999), even though these voters are not the primary target of the site (e.g., comparing the frequency question for "highly engaged voters" to "undecided voters" gives tn = 8.97, p < .01 for a two-tailed test). This accentuates the importance of not confounding the frequency with which particu lar voters visit Web sites with the intentions of those

designing the sites (e.g., certain groups may be more important even if they visit less often) (cf. Trent and Friedenberg 2008, 402-4). And it is the intent of the designers that is critical to us, as a window into cam

paign strategy.6 In Appendix A, we describe additional survey results that also strongly suggest that Web sites are aimed at general voters (e.g., the designers view

Web sites as more representative of the "entire cam paign" than any other form of communication).

For a final piece of confirmatory evidence, we com pared the tone of the rhetoric (i.e., negativity) on Web sites with that found in television advertise ments and newspaper coverage. Although these lat ter two media contain limited and mediated con tent, respectively, we expect the general tone of the campaign?that is, negativity?to be correlated across media (e.g., although television advertisements cannot contain nearly the range of messages found on a Web site, they can be classified as negative in general tone or not). We report details, including the results, in Appendix B. The main point is that we find significant correlation in general tone across these communication channels, suggesting that Web sites capture the general rhetorical thrust of the campaign, while providing a near limitless opportunity for a campaign to directly include any information it deems relevant. All of this evidence supports the claim that Web

sites offer a valid measure of campaign strategy; they provide an unmediated, holistic, and representative

6 The importance of "journalists" is interesting because they often visit a site to obtain information that they then use in writing stories that reach broad audiences (e.g., Bimber and Davis 2003, 68-72; Semiatin 2005,166-67).


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American Political Science Review Vol. 103, No. 3

portrait of messages aimed at voters in general. We now turn to a description of our data collection and approach to measurement.


Our Web site data cover three election cycles, starting in 2002, a year in which Web sites first became "a crit ical part of any candidate's strategy" (Chinni 2002,1). In each year-2002, 2004, and 2006-we identified the universe of major party (Democrat and Republican) House and Senate candidates using the National Jour nal, Congressional Quarterly, and various state party home pages.7 We included the universe of Senate candi dates and then selected a systematic random sample of approximately 20% of House races, stratified by state and district to ensure regional diversity in the sample.

We searched for all of the Web sites in our sample by following links from the National Journal's Web site ( and using search en gines such as Google ( We carefully identified candidates' personal campaign Web sites, ex cluding official congressional Web sites and Web sites sponsored by other groups or individuals. We successfully identified nearly all Senate candi

date Web sites and more than 95% of House sites in our sample. The few cases where the candidates did not launch Web sites came largely from earlier year races

where the candidates had no or very weak (e.g., inexpe rienced, low-funded) opponents. Our sample consisted of a total of 736 Web sites, with 26% coming from the Senate and 74% coming from the House.8 Not surprisingly?given our sampling approach?our sites accurately reflect the universe of campaigns, albeit with a slight overrepresentation of competitive races.9

To evaluate the biasness of other approaches, we identified the candidates in our sample who pro duced advertisements in 2002 and 2004 (relying on the

Wisconsin Advertising Project, which is fully avail

7 We also included independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who was a 2002 House incumbent and 2006 open seat Senate candidate, as well as incumbent Democrat turned independent Joe Lieberman in 2006.

8 The list of all sites coded is available from the authors. The only other study of candidate Web sites that approaches the breadth of our data is Foot and Schneider (2006). However, their focus significantly differs from ours.

9 Since we take a near census of Senate campaigns (e.g., exclud ing only the few candidates who did not have sites), this part of our sample almost perfectly matches the population in terms of incumbency and competitiveness. Our House sample contains 46% incumbents, 43% challengers, and 12% open seat candidates, which

mimics the respective population totals of 49%, 40.5%, and 10.5%. In terms of competitiveness?according to Cook's nonpartisan ratings ( House sample ended up slightly over representing toss-up campaigns, with 9% being toss-up, 18% being leaning or likely, and 73% being solidly in favor of one candidate, compared to respective population figures of 5 %, 14 %, and 81 %. The small overrepresentation of competitive races stems, in part, from our regional stratification, which inadvertently resulted in multiple races from some states with relatively few congressional districts that happen to regularly be competitive (e.g., New Mexico). It also stems slightly from our retaining some districts in our sample in each election cycle in order