Campaigns are a fight over positions of power and the power to influence positions. This article outlines ways to understand the party position and using that for the benefit of the party.
This article discusses the party position through the lens of cleavages, issues, frames and the electorate. Having a better understanding of the party position helps navigate the political landscape and make decisions on issue priorities and messaging frames. Because the party is not the only one interested in its position, of course the voter is too.
One analysis of the downfall of the Social Democrats across many European countries, is that they lost the lower class by being too rightwing on economic issues and they lost their higher educated middle class voters by being to conservative on cultural issues. Another popular analysis works the other way around: the Social Democrats became too progressive on cultural issues and thus lost the lower class vote. In the words of the former leader of the German Social Democratic Party Sigmar Gabriel: ‘Winning over the hipsters in California cannot make up for losing the workers of the Rust Belt.’
Another explanation has to do with the rise of ‘new’ issues, specifically cultural issues such as immigration, racism and the European Union. This ‘second dimension of politics’ contains cultural and moral issues, such as immigration, law and order or gender equality. The ‘first dimension’, that of economy and class struggle, has become less important over the decades because of economic gains for the lower and middle class.
In this analysis, the rise of the Greens fits quite nicely with the growing importance of new issues, both cultural and the climate. In this second dimension, the Greens position is more interesting to a lot of voters than that of competitors.
This second dimension has been termed simply ‘cultural’ or ‘new politics’ but also by the cleavage it represents. Not the cleavage between classes, but between those with Green/alternative/libertarian and traditional/authoritarian/nationalist values. Between doing everything to save our future on this planet, or keep polluting multinationals filling their pockets. Between embracing everyone that does not fit the white-cishet-male norm or using power to strengthen their positions of privilege. Between a European future or an -Exit.
The Chapel Hill Expert Study (CHES) provides information about the positioning of 277 parties on political ideology, in 32 European countries. The results will not come as a surprise: the studies show Green Parties consistently on the utter most pro-European and Green Alternative Liberal positions. This comes in a time where anti-Europeanism, nationalism, sexism, racism, corruption and authoritarianism are on the rise and the climate crisis is rising in urgency.
This second dimension of politics implies new issues have become important to voters. And it would seem logical that a voter will then look for the party that takes a position on that issue, that is close to their own. However, it tends to work a bit differently. Voters do not look for the party with the closest position to theirs per se. They look for the party that they believe is best equipped to solve the issue to their satisfaction.
And that has to do with Issue Ownership. According to the issue ownership theory of voting, voters identify the political party that they feel is the most competent, or the most credible, proponent of a particular issue and vote for that issue owner. Since Greens talk about climate change the most, it would be logical to assume they are most equipped to solve it. Since it is very difficult to change a voter's mind about any issue; it is much easier to turn the focus of the debate on issues where your candidate is well positioned.
Whenever an issue becomes ‘salient’, it does not mean that there will be only one ‘issue-owner.’ Generally, there are two. The anti and pro party. The Greens versus the neofascists / The socialists versus the neoliberals. That implies that whenever an issue becomes salient, you can always still win voters by becoming the main opposition to an issue owner on that issue.
Suppose that your party sees ten issues that may become factors in the upcoming election campaign. On which should the party focus? One way of determining issue importance and position ahead of a campaign is by mapping it out.
You can do the same for your main opposition parties, and label both their and your position on the different issues (or the relative difference between them). This can help in finding opportunities to proliferate yourself by opposing an adversary. And it can help to know where to highlight your relatively better position than that of an important competitor.
Politics is about representation. Who are you going to represent? Are you concerned with the issues they are concerned with? Do you talk in a way they understand and in a place they hear it? Did you give them reasons to trust you will make their lives better, more than other parties will? You can't represent every voter and there is fierce competition over any voter, so who will you focus on and how?
It can be helpful to create a detailed profile of a persona representing a targeted audience because it is easier to come up with effective messages for a person, even a fake one, than for a faceless audience. This is a technique widely used in the advertising industry. A persona is a semi-fictional representation of your likely voters based on market research and real data about your existing voters. Many political parties use three, four or five persona’s to get a better grasp of who their voters are and how they should communicate to them.
A persona is based on characteristics such as:
By defining your personas your party can get a better collective understanding of who your main voters are and how that should influence the party’s communication. Hubspot offers a tool to play around with to show you what a personal profile could look like. If you want to be more precise you can look at demographic data offered by the government, survey your members (for example via google forms or surveymonkey), or look at accessible private data such as Facebook Audience insights. Or, even better, conduct your own data research or buy it from a polling agency.
In terms of campaigns, the party position is only relevant through its perception by voters. It’s about the image, not just the facts. Voters will listen to you, but they will also listen to what rival parties (and media) are saying about you. The greater the rival party’s distortion of your party’s policy message, the less likely are voters to follow your party’s own message when placing the party on an ideological scale (left-right, GAL-TAN). This suggests that you cannot simply afford to ignore messages from rivals or frames in the media because such political rhetoric matters and has the power to shape opinions.
Frames are important in politics and influence party position perceptions by voters. Frames are also used to connect an issue to different underlying values (changing the merits on which a voter judges an issue). When a group was asked whether they would favour or oppose allowing a hate group to hold a political rally, 85% of respondents answered in favour if the question was prefaced with the suggestion, “Given the importance of free speech,” whereas only 45% were in favour when the question was prefaced with the phrase, “Given the risk of violence.”
Party position can influence the cost/benefit of attacking competing political parties in the public sphere. Research seems to suggest that in a multiparty system, a party’s coalition potential affects its likelihood of being attacked. And quite possibly vice-versa, as other research shows that parties with high coalition potential are less likely to make use of negative campaigning. There is an argument to be made to sing a different tune if it helps a party get into office. Although this can come at the cost of getting votes.
In order to reach your peak position of power, it can be beneficial to weigh your vote-seeking strategies against your office-seeking strategies. Oftentimes the first helps the second, sometimes it does not.
The perception of your party position by voters is based on your issue ownership and how issues are framed by you and your adversaries. Climate and cultural issues (including anti-corruption and pro-European) have become more important for voters in recent years, often to the benefit of Green parties.
Last updated: June 2022