The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Diego Garzia: Personalization of Politics between Television and the Internet: Leader Effects in the 2013 Italian Parliamentary Election

Diego Garzia, European University Institute

In recent years, a growing number of academic studies have concentrated on the increasingly tighter relationship between personality and the functioning of representative democracy, with a particular interest on the process of ‘personalization of politics’(Garzia, 2014). Institutional analyses have stressed the growing importance of leaders within their own parties’structures (Poguntke and Webb, 2005), while studies of modern electoral campaigns have emphasized the increased visibility of political leaders as well as their crucial role in conveying party messages to the public at large (Swanson and Mancini, 1996).

It is no doubt that the changing structure of mass communications in the second half of the twentieth century has been central in stressing the role of political leaders at the expense of parties, making the latter ‘more dependent in their communications with voters on the essentially visual and personality-based medium of television’(Mughan, 2000: 129). The tight link between the rise of television and the personalization of politics has been customarily put forward in the existing scholarship on the topic. Yet, the link between patterns of televised political information and changes in voting behaviour has received only limited attention in the empirical literature so far. In particular, the role played by television exposure as a driver of personalization in voting behaviour has so far been widely under-researched.

Another important deficit in the extant personalization of politics literature lies with its generalized lack of interest for the dramatic changes occurred in the media landscape over the most recent years. There cannot be any doubt that the advent of the Internet has profoundly altered the way information is produced and digested by the wider public at election time. Against this background, however, there is very little received wisdom when it comes to the relationship between Internet usage and the drivers of electoral choice.

This paper addresses these timely empirical questions through a case study of Italy ‘‘a prototypical case for the personalization of politics and its relationship with political communication. In this respect, the 2013 election stands as a potentially crucial point. Eventually, the historical dominance of television as main source of political information for the electorate writ large is counterbalanced by the emergence of Internet. This development is paralleled by the massive instant-success of Beppe Grillo’s Internet-based Five Star Movement at the expense of ‘traditional’parties. The extent to which these two phenomena relate to each other, however, is currently a matter of debate. By looking at leader effects across different audiences, this paper elaborates on the as of now underdeveloped link between electoral research and political communication, and eventually speaks to the broader question of how important is media for the outcome of contemporary democratic elections. 

The paper starts by reviewing the few available works from the international literature dealing with the connection between exposure to old and new media and leader effects on voting. It then moves to an empirical assessment of these relationships in the context of the 2013 Italian parliamentary election. Data comes from the Italian National Election Study (ITANES) post-electoral survey (nationally representative multistage sample conducted through face-to-face interviews/CAPI, N=1508). The results are tested for their robustness across a wide range of model specifications and alternative operationalizations of dependent and independent variables.

The analysis of the determinants of vote choice confirms the notion that individuals’evaluation of political leaders’personality is a key variable within their voting calculus. As to the relationship between leader effects on voting and media exposure, this paper contributes to the extant literature by supporting the idea that leader effects are somehow incited by heavy exposure to television. Insofar as television is (at least partly) responsible for the personalization of voting behaviour, can the Internet be considered a medium capable of affecting such trend? The answer that can be derived from the empirical results is two-fold, depending on the type of parties for which people cast their vote. Indeed, the leader would seem to matter less to Internauts voting for traditional parties but more to those of them voting for the (largely online-based) Five Star Movement. This intrinsically unsurprising and to some extent obvious conclusion hints nonetheless at a potential political development of utmost relevance. In a way similar to how Berlusconi gathered personal popularity and electoral influence through television, forcing all his political competitors to surrender to his media logic accordingly, Grillo might be paving the way for traditional parties and their respective leaders to ‘invade’the online arena. The political communication of current Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has been proved to be a telling example in this respect. In turn, this supports a fascinating idea by which rather than depersonalizing politics, Internet itself might provide parties and leaders with a new arena to actually foster patterns of political personalization.


Garzia, D. (2014). Personalization of Politics and Electoral Change. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mughan, A. (2000). Media and the Presidentialization of Parliamentary Elections. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Poguntke, T.; Webb, P. (2005) (eds.). The Presidentialization of Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swanson, D.; Mancini, P. (1996) (eds.). Politics, media, and modern democracy. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Diego Garzia