Populist parties pose a formidable challenge to traditional parties. Populists have managed to force issues largely beneficial to them – such as migration – onto the political agenda, impose a divisive communication style (‘us versus them’), and move public discussion to social media such as Twitter. So far, traditional parties have struggled to find adequate feedback. Several domains of politics are potentially involved, including economic policy, issue ownership, the election of politicians (Aiginger 2019, Fuest, 2019, Pastor and Veronesi 2019). But the most distinctive element of populism is arguably its communication style (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017, Guriev and Papaioannou 2020).
Political scholars advise traditional parties to use communication strategies to combat populism (Kendall-Taylor and Nietzsche 2020). Language and framing should avoid linking identity and partisanship, as should efforts to educate voters to the other side. Traditional parties should revive their own grassroots mobilization and integrate their platform policies into a unified and aspirational narrative. Indeed, using non-judgmentally exchangeable narratives in interpersonal conversations reduces exclusionary attitudes—toward immigrants—that are often present among popular voters (Kalla and Brookman 2020). However, these techniques are expensive and time-consuming.
Perhaps, traditional groups may also adopt an opportunistic communication style that relies on a blame-attribution, dispositional discourse (Busby et al. 2019). But can these communication styles employed – and to a certain extent, promoted – by populist parties – be used effectively by traditional parties to counter populism (Ackerman et al. 2014, Dai and Kustov 2022)? Admittedly, populist-style political ads can reduce voter turnout and generate disgust (Chong et al. 2015). Nevertheless, strategies aimed at disengaging voters from opposition parties are likely to be more effective than plans to persuade them (Kalla and Brookman 2018) or attempts to get votes among the party’s own voters (Green and Gerber 2019).
A field test: the Italian referendum on reducing the number of members of parliament
The constitutional referendum held in September 2020 on a significant reduction (from 945 to 600) of the total number of Members of Parliament (MP) in the two chambers of the Italian Parliament represents the perfect testing ground for traditional parties’ communication strategies. The reduction of MPs was initiated and strongly supported by the populist parties – the Five Star Movements and the League. Indeed, the impetus for these constitutional reforms was part of a populist narrative: reducing seats for political elites to save public money. The referendum was one-sided, with public opinion largely in favor of reducing the number of MPs (70% for ‘yes’ vs 30% for ‘no’).
What communication strategies should traditional parties implement during election campaigns on such a populist issue? In a recent paper (Galasso et al. 2022) we compare the electoral effectiveness of two alternative strategies, using the electoral element of a referendum committee opposed to the reduction of MPs. A ‘win the argument’ strategy aims to persuade voters by distorting the populist message. Information on the insignificant cost savings achieved by reducing the number of MPs and the potential negative consequences for the democratic representation of Parliament is disclosed to the electorate. A ‘use the same weapon’ strategy is to disarm populist voters by reducing the credibility of populist parties. This strategy involves direct attacks on politicians who promote a reduction in the number of MPs, clearly highlighting their opportunistic or illegal behaviour. The election component consists of two video ads – one following each election strategy. These two videos differ in their tone and message, but are identical in their length and graphics. Both videos (available here) lasted 30 seconds
Programmatic advertising: About one million impressions
These two videos were shown in 200 medium-sized municipalities in six major regions using programmatic advertising (PA). PA is an automated transaction of buying and selling ads online through an exchange platform’s algorithmic software in a fraction of a second. A publisher lists ad space on a supply-side platform (SSP) for a specific audience, who are currently on its webpage. This list includes information about sites, ad placements, and – thanks to cookies on the visitor’s device – geographic location, demographics, and visitor interests. Demand-side platforms (DSPs) review this information to match users with their advertisers’ budgets and targeting parameters. In real time, DSPs bid on behalf of their advertisers. The SSP picks the winner and shows the ad to the user on the publisher’s site. Programmatic advertising has several advantages. It allows targeting users at a granular level, with the right message, at the right place, at the right time and across devices such as mobile, desktop, tablet and TV. Thus, budget wastage due to reaching potentially disinterested audience can be eliminated and feedback on the performance of each ad can be obtained in real time.
Two selected videos were featured as non-skippable pre-rolls on a large website – news, business, sports, games, food, etc. Our budget allowed us to fund about a million impressions in total We instructed the professional company to use a bidding strategy that would allow each municipality to receive a number of impressions proportional to its size. The targeted proportion of citizen impressions was around 57%. In the end, about 850,000 impressions were placed and about 600,000 people were reached – avoiding double counting.
Municipalities with 2,500 to 15,000 inhabitants and sufficient digital penetration were selected for field testing to execute electoral campaigns. Within each of the six regions, triplets of municipalities were formed by minimizing a measured distance on the relevant political characteristics and randomly selected to obtain 300 municipalities (i.e. 100 triplets). Within each triplet, municipalities were randomly assigned to be treated with one of the two videos or to be a control. Figure 1 shows the treatment and control municipalities on a map of Italy
Cost Effectiveness of Voter Discouragement
Programmatic advertising was quite effective – 59% of viewers watched videos to the end (ie 30 seconds) and three quarters watched for at least 15 seconds. However, there are some differences between the two videos. Videos with direct attacks on the credibility of populist politicians were more effective in engaging viewers than providing partisan informational content. The ‘use the same weapon’ strategy was also more successful than the ‘win the argument’ strategy in influencing electoral outcomes. Videos attacking the credibility of populist politicians reduced turnout by about 2 percentage points – corresponding to a 3.3% drop in total votes. This deactivation effect was stronger among likely supporters of constitutional reform (‘yes’ voters). In fact, the corresponding drop in ‘Yes’ vote share was around 0.5 percentage points. These estimates correspond to a 4% decline in the number of ‘yes’ votes and a 1.7% decline in the number of ‘no’ votes. The ‘use the same weapon’ strategy was very effective in alienating voters. The persuasion rate for abstention (DellaVigna and Gentzkow 2010) equals 11.2%, while the persuasion rate for opposing the reform (i.e. ‘no’ vote) is 2.6%.
Absentee persuasion rates are consistent with those found in the ‘get out the vote’ literature using canvassing (Pons 2018, Green et al. 2003) or TV (Della Vigna and Kaplan 2007, Enikolopov et al. 2011). However, the cost is quite small. According to Green and Gerber (2019), the cost per additional person induced to vote – by door-to-door, phone or election day – is at least €30. According to our tests, the cost of dissuading someone from voting associated with showing a ‘use the same weapon’ video through programmatic advertising is only €2. Of course, traditional parties employing this ‘use the same weapon’ strategy during election campaigns may incur various costs in terms of increasingly toxic messages and reduced political participation, which would add to the existing costs of populism (Funke et al. 2021). However, in terms of campaign effects, our findings suggest that traditional parties, when developing their strategies to (best) respond to populist parties on populist issues, should consider demobilization rather than persuasion.
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