Do Political Campaigns Matter? Campaign Effects in Elections and Referendums

By David M. Farrell; Rudiger Schmitt-Beck | Go to book overview
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Calculating or capricious?

The new politics of late deciding voters

Ian McAllister

More than any time since democratization, modern election campaigns bring uncertain outcomes. This change is most visible in the growing proportion of voters who now delay their voting decision until the election campaign is under way. Where once the vast majority of voters entered an election campaign with fixed views about how they would vote, such voters have declined dramatically in numbers. A study of changes in the timing of the vote in twelve OECD democracies found that in all but one (Denmark), there was an increasing trend to delay the voting decision, and in three-Australia, Finland and Sweden-the trend was particularly marked (Dalton et al. 2000:48; see also Gopoian 1994). In short, more voters than ever before are potentially available for conversion during the election campaign, with major consequences for how election campaigns are organized and conducted.

This new phenomenon of the late deciding voter is often traced to partisan dealignment; with fewer voters possessing affective loyalties to the major parties, they enter the election campaign undecided about their vote and therefore more susceptible to the issues, appeals and themes which emerge during the course of the campaign (Crewe 1983; Bowen 1994; Dalton 1996). Such behaviour has usually implied a superficial voting decision, with random events or political personalities subsuming a rational evaluation of the issues. But this change has also occurred at a time when voters are better educated, possess more cognitive skills and display more political interest than ever before (Neuman 1986; Bennett 1988; Nie et al. 1996). Does delayed voter decision making imply greater volatility and capriciousness in electoral outcomes, or a more calculating, issue-oriented electorate?

The political behaviour of late deciders has significant implications for the conduct of election campaigns. If late decision making is generally calculating, with voters evaluating party policies for the potential benefits to themselves or to other groups, then the campaign is likely to focus on economic issues. The character of the campaign will be serious and objective, and the parties will appeal to voters' pocketbooks. By contrast, if the voters who delay their decision are capricious, then the parties are more likely to emphasize a single message during the campaign, and to place more weight

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