Going public against institutional constraints? Analyzing the online presence intensity of 2014 European Parliament election candidates

Published date01 June 2016
Date01 June 2016
Subject MatterArticles
European Union Politics
2016, Vol. 17(2) 303–323
! The Author(s) 2015
Going public against
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institutional constraints?
DOI: 10.1177/1465116515618252
Analyzing the online
presence intensity of 2014
European Parliament
election candidates
Javier Lorenzo Rodrı´guez
Department of Social Sciences, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid,
Amuitz Garmendia Madariaga
Department of Political Science, Binghamton University, USA
Political parties and candidates have not been immune to the changes that the Internet
and social media have introduced in electoral campaigns. Yet, as the use of digital media
by political elites is becoming a norm in the United States, in Europe, the decision to
develop an online presence depends on the cross-national differences regarding candi-
dates’ constraints and incentives. European Parliament elections present an exceptional
comparative opportunity to measure this potential diversity. Using an original database
on the online presence of more than 5000 candidates competing under the label of
incumbent parties in 2014, we demonstrate that there are two relevant groups of
nonadopters, and that candidates’ online campaign intensity varies significantly depend-
ing on incumbency and the ballot structure in their countries.
European Parliament, comparative politics, event count models, social media, candi-
dates, campaigns
Corresponding author:
Javier Lorenzo Rodrı´guez, Department of Social Sciences, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, 128 Calle Madrid,
28903 Getafe, Spain.
Email: javier.lorenzo@uc3m.es

European Union Politics 17(2)
As the number of connected users increases and digital natives (or millennials)
acquire the legal age for political participation, the relevance of developing a pol-
itical presence on the Internet, and specif‌ically, on currently popular social media
platforms, has become commonplace for parties and candidates in advanced
democracies. In the United States, where the dif‌fusion of the Internet is such
that 84.2% of individuals are online (International Telecommunication Union,
2014) and 74% of them use social media (Pew Research Center, 2014), more
than 90% of Congress members had adopted a Facebook prof‌ile by the time of
2012 Elections (Gulati and Williams, 2013), and nearly all of them have their own
personal websites (Williams and Gulati, 2012) and Twitter accounts nowadays
(Barbera et al., 2014). While the levels of the Internet dif‌fusion follow similar
patterns in a subset of European Union (EU) member countries, a general overview
of the online usages of European citizens and elites presents still remarkable chal-
lenges to the generalizability of ‘‘America’s online success story’’ (Anstead and
Chadwick, 2008).
The European story tells us, for instance, that there exists a wide variation
among countries in terms of their Internet penetration and users’ social media
presence, and that with respect to the latter the average is considerably lower
than in the United States (Eurostat, 2014: Information Society Key indicators).1
Accordingly, growing individual country studies focused on European party and
candidates’ online activity during national elections show that the political use of
digital media is far from reaching the ‘commodif‌ication’ process (Vaccari, 2010)
observed in American presidential and congressional campaigns. Although nobody
questions the progressive adaptation of European elites to the changing commu-
nication environment, recent evidence shows that, even in those countries with the
highest level of information society development (Denmark, the Netherlands, or
Sweden), the number of candidates displaying social media prof‌iles, especially
Twitter, is still below leading comparative standards (Hansen and Kosiara-
Pedersen, 2014; Larsson and Moe, 2011; Vergeer and Hermans, 2013).2
Furthermore, as the 2009 European Election Study (EES) elite study showed,
almost 50% of the candidates in the sample declared that they didn’t have a web-
site, and approximately 40% of them admitted not using social media for cam-
paigning purposes during the process of electing the seventh European
Parliament (EP).
Following the dif‌fusion of innovation theory (Rogers, 2003),3 political scientists
have extensively scrutinized to what extent does the decision of technology adop-
tion by political candidates depend on the personal characteristics of the adopter,
on the attributes of the innovation or on the environment in which these decisions
are made. As adoption of web-campaigning and social media tools have become
nearly universal in the United States and the relative advantage of early adoption
has decreased, studies have gone a step further by explaining the following: the
existence, still, of a residual group of laggards (nonadopting candidates reluctant to

Lorenzo Rodrı´guez and Garmendia Madariaga
technology innovations; Gulati and Williams, 2013), the intensity of candidates’
activity online (Druckman et al., 2013), or even the content and outcomes of their
interactions with the public (Barbera et al., 2014; Druckman et al., 2009). However,
we should not overlook the fact that the United States is an outlier rather than a
modal case with respect to the political impact of digital media (Bimber, 2014).
We depart from the seminal comparative work of Lilleker et al. (2011) and the
still-prevailing concern of Anstead and Chadwick (2008) when underscoring the
necessity of increasing cross-country comparisons of Internet dif‌fusion and impact,
to analyze the determinants of technology adoption by candidates in 2014 EP elec-
tions in 27 member states. To do so, we employ a unique dataset that captures
comprehensively candidates’ online presence by accounting for their decision to
have a personal website, and a prof‌ile on Facebook, Twitter, or Linkedin when
campaigning in these second-order elections.4 At a glance, descriptive statistics
reveal that almost 30% of the candidates in the sample lacked any online presence
and just 8% of them were everywhere, demonstrating the necessity of delving into
this behavioral variation. To this end, we divide our analysis in two parts: in the f‌irst
one, we identify the dif‌ferent types of nonadopters, disentangling the ef‌fect of the
existence or the absence of an opportunity to be online on the decision of not
developing a presence; in the second one, we account for the online campaign inten-
sity variation among the elected candidates in 2014. We f‌ind that personal, partisan,
and institutional factors played a large role on individual candidates’ online presence,
adoption and intensity, and testing, for the f‌irst time, main conventional theoretical
assumptions in the literature in a large and necessary comparative sample.
Technology adoption by political parties and
candidates in Europe
Election campaigns are communication campaigns (Bimber, 2014: 130), and des-
pite the consensus on their minimal electoral ef‌fects (Brady et al., 2006), their
relevant role as a source of public information af‌fecting voters’ private beliefs
through reinforcement has led to their constant evolution. Therefore, competition
for votes drives parties and candidates to make their information as accessible as
possible, and this usually requires broadcasting messages over the most popular
media available (Ansolabehere, 2006). As a consequence, it should be possible to
trace linkages from main technological innovations to changes in political commu-
nication strategies, and on to the choices, and adaptation of political actors. The
expansion of the Internet usage in advanced democracies and the almost general-
ized presence of less politicized and youngest cohorts on the social media provide
evident opportunities for those politicians willing to increase their visibility as
means for maximizing the chances of getting elected.
In the early days of the World Wide Web, f‌irst studies on the dif‌fusion of digital
media in Europe were exclusively focused on the absence or presence of parties and
candidates on the Internet during national general elections (see Gibson and Ward,
2000, for the case of UK; Nixon and Johansson, 1999, for Sweden; Carlson and

European Union Politics 17(2)
Djupsund, 2003, for Finland; or Newell, 2001, for Italy). While the number of early
website adopters was moderately signif‌icant (around a third of them on average), their
presence, as it was the case everywhere, was most of the time reduced to the provision
of static information, using the web as virtual brochures or electronic billboards
(Sadow and James, 1999). Nevertheless, even at this very early stage, Margolis and
Resnick (1999) found several dif‌ferences among American and British major parties:
the online of‌fer of the former was wider and more sophisticated.
Therefore, since the beginning, this literature identif‌ied two major constraints to
the dif‌fusion and later universalization of the political adoption of digital media in
Europe. First, the levels of Internet penetration and the tendency of users to go
online to obtain political information have always been much lower than in the
United States (Koc-Michalska et al., 2014), where most of these technologies were
launched and used for the f‌irst time. Second, the predominance of proportional
electoral systems and the existence of party-centered organizational rules (i.e.
membership, candidate recruitment and selection and campaign f‌inance) even in
majoritarian contexts (Anstead and Chadwick,...

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