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Party competition and campaign knowledge : an analysis of the 1997, 2000 and 2004 Canadian federal elections Lawlor, Andrea

Abstract

Election campaigns are often cited as tools of political learning. The intensity and volume of the information disseminated during a campaign is said to "enlighten" voters, allowing them to arrive at their preferred electoral decision. Using the 1997, 2000 and 2004 Canadian Election Studies, this paper uses the enlightenment thesis as a theoretical guide for the analyses of three types of campaign learning: policy learning, identification of party leaders and perceptions of a national party’s chances of winning the entire electoral contest. This paper examines local riding competitiveness as a catalyst for interest and competition’s role as an incentive to learn. The intensity of the competition should reveal the importance of information as it assists voters in making an effective electoral choice. From the perspective of political parties, competitiveness highlights the marginality of a riding encouraging parties to adjust levels of local candidate spending accordingly, the result of which is more information distributed to the electorate. Competitiveness should compound the pre-existing effect of campaign learning by increasing the incentives for the dissemination of information. The study concludes that there is little support for campaign learning, both on its own and as a by-product of competitiveness. There is no general learning trend in the Canadian case. In addition, highly competitive contests do not appear to provide incentive for voters to learn, save in one instance. There is a perceptible link between highly competitive local ridings and a voter’s ability to accurately predict the outcome of the national contest. Also, there is no indication that local candidate spending has any positive effect on knowledge. Strong implications arise about the concept of campaign learning and the campaigning process in general. Campaigns are not enlightening voters about factual information, and competitiveness, which should spark interest, is not providing a strong incentive to learn. These findings should encourage political parties to critically evaluate information dissemination and campaigning strategies in competitive districts.

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