All Politics Is Not Local: Local Candidate Tweeting in the 2015 Election

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Political News Wednesday, November 25, 2015 View Count = 2078

All Politics Is Not Local: Local Candidate Tweeting in the 2015 Election

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Election 360 Logo 3“All Politics Is Not Local: Local Candidate Tweeting in the 2015 Election
” is written by Julie Killin and Tamara A. Small from the University of Calgary and University of Guelph respectively. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Julie Killin, Tamara A. Small and 64 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

Social media is generally considered a positive development for electioneering. Barack Obama’s use of social media in the 2008 American election continues to be heralded as the model for the full potential of digital technology in an election campaign (Strömer-Galley 2014). The Obama campaign was successful in using social media to solicit donations, mobilize grassroots supporters, and engage young voters. 

A different side of social media emerged in the 2015 Canadian federal election campaign. Several local candidates became major news stories because of comments and actions made or captured on social media. After four-year old inappropriate tweets surfaced, a Liberal candidate dropped out the race. As did a Conservative candidate, who had posted YouTube videos making crank calls. Several other candidates were forced to apologize for comments/actions previously made on social media, including an NDP candidate who was rebuked for a disrespectful online remark about Auschwitz. While these incidents generated considerable media attention, it is not clear how typical this is. 

Much has been written, going back to the 2008 election, on the use of social media by Canadian political parties and their leaders (e.g., Francoli et al. 2012), however we know very little about how Canada’s local candidates make use of it. We therefore decided to explore the use of one social media, Twitter, by sampling 33 local candidates across nine ridings in the last month of the 2015 campaign.(1) More specifically, we examine the content of tweets written by the candidates to assess the nature of campaign communication in the Twittersphere.(2) 

First, we found that the majority of all candidates in our study referenced their leader at some point during the last month of the election. For example, Liberal candidate Judy Foote (Bonavista Burin Trinity) highlighted her leader in the following policy-tweet: “@JustinTrudeau’s plan invests $3B for home, long-term and palliative care” (October 2, 2015). This is consistent with findings from the 2011 Ontario election, which found that local candidates put a good amount of attention on the party leader within constituency campaigning (Cross et al., 2015). 

While the local-candidate campaign carries little importance relative to the national campaign in the minds of voters (see Blais et al., 2003), incumbent candidates and those in competitive ridings do tend to focus their communication more on the local campaign. These tweets predominately include messages about their daily whereabouts, and acknowledge various community businesses, residents, and local points of interest like sports teams and community festivals. Interestingly, of those candidates in our study, none of those who focused their messages more on issues of national importance, like the economy or the environment, were elected. This might suggest that some candidates have a greater ability to present an independent message from the national party than others, which coincides with their competitiveness (Sayers, 1999). 

This focus on the leaders extends to negative campaigning. When local candidates in the sample “go negative,” they tweet against their opponent(s)’ party and/or leader. For example, liberal candidate Kimberly Love (Bruce Grey Owen Sound) tweeted, “Harper lacks ambition for our country. His vision of Canada is small, meek and fearful” (October 5, 2015). Indeed, 20 of the 33 candidates we followed tweeted a negative opponent leader reference. The tweeting of negative messages against local opponents was somewhat less common (10/30 candidates). An example includes, “Why does @LarryMillerMP support moves that sell out his (former) fellow dairy farmers?” (Chris Albinati, Green Party, Sept. 29, 2015). The candidates from the Liberal and the NDP parties were most likely to engage in negative campaigning at the local level, presenting an interesting counter-narrative to the national frame of the Conservative Party as the one most prone to propagating negative messages.

Finally, the evidence of the dominance of the national campaign narrative in Twitter communication emerges when we examine the tweets that explicitly ask followers to vote on Election Day. The majority of candidates did not actually ask their followers to vote for them, but they rather invited followers to vote for their party. The exceptions to this trend being Liberal candidates Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre) and Chrystia Freeland (University Rosedale); both candidates ran in very competitive races and tweeted for followers to vote for them more times than they requested followers to vote for their party.

It appears that the controversial pre-campaign uses of social media that got some candidates in trouble in 2015 is atypical against our sample of local candidates’ Twitter accounts during the campaign. Overall, we found that candidates use Twitter rather conservatively. Rather than engaging in local topic and issue, candidates stick to the national party line. Despite the old adage, all politics is not local in the Canadian Twittersphere. 

References 

Blais, Andre, Elisabeth Gidengil, Agineszka Dobryznska, Neil Nevette and Richard Nadeau. “Does the Local Candidate Matter? Candidate Effects in the Canadian Election of 2000.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 36, no. 3 (2003): 657-664.

Cross, William, Jonathan Malloy, Tamara A. Small, and Laura Stephenson. Fighting for Votes: Parties, the Media and Voters in the 2011 Ontario Election. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015.

Francoli, Mary, Josh Greenberg, and Christopher Waddell. “The Campaign in the Digital Media,” in The Canadian Federal Election of 2011, edited by Jon H. Pammett and Christopher Dornan, 219-246. Toronto: Dundurn Press.

Sayers, Anthony. Parties, Candidates and Constituency Campaigns in Canadian Elections. Vancouver, UBC Press, 1999.

Strömer-Galley, Jennifer. Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

(1)  Our sample was selected to include competitive and non-competitive electoral races across rural, suburban and urban ridings. The ridings include: Fleetwood Port Kells (BC), New Westminster-Burnaby (BC), Foothills (AB), Calgary Centre (AB), Winnipeg South Centre (MB), University Rosedale (ON), Bruce Grey Owen Sound (ON), Central Nova (NS), and Bonavista Burin Trinity (NL). Data were collected for the four weeks prior to the election. 

(2)   Retweets excluded.

Julie Killin is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Calgary. Her dissertation focuses on how a political candidate’s gender affects the nature of their campaign communications in Australian state and Canadian provincial election campaigns. 

Tamara A. Small is an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph. Her research interests focus on digital politics, specifically the use and impact of the internet for Canadian political actors. She is the co-author of Fighting for Votes: Parties, the Media and Voters in an Ontario Election (UBC Press, 2015), co-editor of Political Communication in Canada: Meet the Press, Tweet the Rest (UBC Press, 2014), and Mind the Gaps: Canadian Perspectives on Gender and Politics (Fernwood Press, 2013). 

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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