Evaluations of the electoral impact of new information and communication technology (ICT) campaigns on voters have been somewhat limited and inconclusive. These results can be explained by the limited introduction of new ICT among the electorate and also by the intrinsic characteristics of the new media. Internet has an enormous potential in disseminating electoral messages at a low cost (compared to traditional media), but it also has its drawbacks which can be broadly summarized as an increase in the transaction costs or a loss in the control of the election message. Some recent studies addressing this point have found a positive correlation between cyber-campaigning and election performance. This article will try to unravel this question in the 2008 Spanish parliamentary election. Beyond the enthusiasm towards new ICT exhibited during the electoral campaign by both politicians and traditional media, can an independent and significant effect of new ICT on the vote be found? It is certainly worth answering this question in a political system traditionally dominated by mass media campaigning but that has recently (namely, in the 2004 parliamentary election) experienced the potential disruptive power of new ICT.
This article takes advantage of the 2008 Spanish general election panel survey study. To cope with the multi-party nature of the Spanish political system, a multinomial logistic regression is estimated. The results show that the cyber-campaign had a small but statistically significant impact on the vote, even when controlled by an objective measure of political knowledge and by off-line political campaign exposure. This impact differs according to party preference. Counter to the ‘normalization’ hypothesis of the political impact of the internet, cyber-campaign exposure helped minor parties (the post-communist IU and a newly-born Spanish nationalist party, UPyD), increased abstention and decreased the vote for major parties (the conservative PP and, mainly, the incumbent socialist PSOE). These results can be explained by the political and social context of the 2008 Spanish election campaign and give interesting insights into the ways new ICT is modifying our political systems’ dynamics. If political actors tend to communicate taking the least-effort path, they will use new ICT to disseminate their messages when they perceive a relative blockage in the traditional communication channels. This situation affected the minor and fringe parties in Spain 2008 because of the strong polarization of the traditional media. Meanwhile, PP’s leadership in opposition allowed media groups and sympathisers to conduct a strong campaign on the web precisely because they were in the opposition. Allegedly Spain 2008 is quite a normal case among other developed political and media configuration systems and may be representative of the kind of pressures currently at work in our political systems. Actually, the explanation could also be sensibly extended to more extreme cases where the use of ICT made a strong political impact. For instance, democratic transition countries like the Ukraine of the ‘orange revolution’ or countries with media system crises like Spain during the exceptional 2004 general elections.