Do Political Campaigns Matter? Campaign Effects in Elections and Referendums

By David M. Farrell; Rudiger Schmitt-Beck | Go to book overview

10

Public opinion formation in Swiss federal referendums

Michael Bützer and Lionel Marquis

Direct democracy is central to Swiss politics (Trechsel and Kriesi 1996). Three to four times a year, citizens are asked to express their opinions in popular votes on ballot proposals. It is this important stage of the political decision-making process, the stage when voters and public authorities are confronted with referendum campaigns, that is the focus of attention here. In Chapter 1 of this volume it was noted that the general view on whether campaigns actually matter could best be described as 'undecided'. This is particularly so for referendum campaigns (as also shown by Chapter 9). Whereas some authors underline the voters' limited cognitive capacity and the decisive impact of the ballot propaganda (Converse 1964; Hertig 1982; Cronin 1989; Saris 1997), others, while acknowledging the important role of campaigning, point out that voters are not quite so ignorant as is often believed (Kriesi 1994; Dubois and Feeney 1998; Klöti and Linder 1998; Norris et al. 1999).

Referendum campaigns provide a good illustration of the complexity of the public opinion formation process, showing how the relevant characteristics can change from one issue to the next. This chapter aims at analysing this fundamental link between discourse at the macro-level of political elites and cognitive mechanisms at the micro-level of individual electors. How do voters form their opinion on ballot issues? What factors determine the people's reaction to communications of the political elite? And to what extent do campaigns influence the ballot outcomes? In the next section, we present our theoretical model, based upon John Zaller's research (1992), which we believe elucidates well the mechanisms at work in referendum campaigns. Indeed, during these campaigns, advocates and opponents of the ballot measures are foremost in using propaganda techniques to try to influence the voters' decision. A top-down approach is therefore appropriate. Moreover, Zaller's 'RAS model' (receive-accept-sample)-combining, as it does, the communications of the political elite with just two individual characteristics, political awareness and personal predispositions-is both parsimonious and sophisticated enough to account for the voter behaviour in any ballot measure, independently of the issue at stake.

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