The Use of Party Brand Labels in Congressional Election Campaigns

Date01 August 2013
Published date01 August 2013
AuthorJacob R. Neiheisel,Sarah Niebler
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Dickinson College
The Use of Party Brand Labels in
Congressional Election Campaigns
In spite of the centrality of partisanship to many theories of lawmaking, and the
important role that party cues play in shaping voters’ evaluations of political candidates,
remarkably little is knownabout the circumstances under which congressional candidates
use partisan symbols on the campaign trail. Employing data on candidates’ televised
advertisements over six elections (1998–2008), the present study explores the “supply
side” of partisan cues and f‌inds that candidates are strategic about their use of party
symbols. And while personal and district-level factors inf‌luence how candidates utilize
partisan rhetoric, we show that the institutional context in which they campaign also
Party symbols play an important role in many theories of lawmak-
ing and have been placed at the center of numerous scholarly debates
surrounding the validity of different explanations for the existence and
continued inf‌luence of parties in Congress. In spite of this focus, remark-
ably few studies have examined the extent to which, and under what
conditions, candidates for Congress use partisan symbols on the cam-
paign trail. Employing data on candidates’ televised advertisements over
six elections (1998–2008) from the Wisconsin Advertising Project, the
present study helps to f‌ill this void and offers a look at when candidates
turn to partisan rhetoric in making a bid for elected off‌ice. In doing so, we
speak to recent work on party brands and contribute to the literature on
candidate strategy—an area of inquiry that has lagged signif‌icantly
behind work on voting behavior (Franklin 1991, 1201)—by illuminating
the factors that weigh into candidates’ strategic calculations regarding the
content of their campaign appeals.
In the next two sections, we review the relevant literature on
party brands before going on to develop and test a series of hypotheses
related to candidates’ use of partisan symbols in congressional election
DOI: 10.1111/lsq.12019
© 2013 The Comparative Legislative Research Center of The University of Iowa
campaigns. Our f‌indings suggest that candidates are strategic about when
they employ party labels in their campaign communications and respond
to both the partisan composition of their districts and the institutional
context in which they must campaign in deciding whether to use partisan
symbols in their televised ads. Members of the party that controls the
presidency are particularly calculated in their use of party symbols and
eschew mentions of partisanship except during periods of unif‌ied gov-
ernment. We conclude with a brief discussion of how future inquiries
might build upon the analysis that we present here, examining the effects
of candidates’ strategic use of partisan appeals on voters and on their
prospects at the polls.
Party Brands and Candidate Communication
Perhaps the chief motivating assumption behind party-centered
theories of congressional lawmaking is that legislative parties grew out of
a need to serve members’ electoral goals. One of the core arguments
advanced by proponents of such theories is that the party label is a
collective good which provides members of Congress with a low-cost
means of signaling their preferences to the electorate (Groeling 2010,
21–22; Kiewiet and McCubbins 1991, 39–42; Snyder and Ting 2002,
91). In this way, party labels function as brands, providing voters with an
eff‌icient source of information about a party’s policies and performance.
Among the most outspoken critics of party government theories is
Keith Krehbiel, who has argued that, far from being a “treasured brand
name,” the party label is a “bad luck charm” from which legislators
attempt to distance themselves on the campaign trail (1998, 223; see also
Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002, 23; Groeling 2010, 17). It is not
altogether clear, however, that party government theories, such as those
forwarded by Cox and McCubbins (1993, 2005), necessitate that legis-
lators always cleave to their party label on the campaign trail. While
candidates concern themselves with the strength of their party’s brand
name heading into the elections, much as they might the state of the
national economy, party reputations likely exert a direct effect on the vote
regardless of whether individual candidates draw attention to their par-
tisan aff‌iliation on the campaign trail (see Cox and McCubbins 1993,
113; McGhee 2008, 734).
National forces, such as the state of the economy or the parties’
public records, appear to have a direct impact on election outcomes
(Basinger and Ensley 2007, 381; McGhee 2008, 734). Importantly, the
effects of national conditions are also mediated through the messages
378 Jacob R. Neiheisel and Sarah Niebler

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