Simplicity of Populist Messages and Its Effect on Citizens - A Survey Experiment


In general, the concept of populism is not related to one specific ideology. Thus, actors with various ideological backgrounds apply populistic language and styles. Elements of populist rhetorical strategies are among others simple language, blame attribution and people-centrism. Even though populist actors use similar frames in their rhetoric, they appeal to voters that display varying characteristics and attitudes. So far, research did not pay much attention to the effect of simple language as a tool of populist rhetoric. Thus, this paper aims to show how simple language in combination with other populist rhetorical strategies has a different effect across various voter groups. Simple language is hypothesized to have a higher effect on people with underlying populist attitudes than without and a lower effect among left-wing than right-wing populist party supporters. To shed light on the effect of rhetorical strategies, I conducted a survey experiment in Germany which is a suitable case as a left-wing as well as right-wing populist party is represented in the national parliament. Thus, voters from various ideological backgrounds are approachable. Between December 2020 and January 2021, a candidate choice experiment was conducted through an online panel company in Germany with N=1748. The paired vignette design asked respondents to choose three times between statements of two candidates and select the candidate they would rather vote for. The statements apply varying attribute levels of language complexity, blame attribution and people-centrism to model left-wing, right-wing as well as centered populist and non-populist messages. The experiment shows that simple language cannot be considered a successful populist rhetorical strategy. Surprisingly, simple language has a rather negative effect on vote choice in general, but also across people with underlying populist attitudes. However, the experimental results provide slight evidence that right-wing populist party voters respond more to simple language than left-wing party voters.

Under Review
Rebecca C. Kittel
Rebecca C. Kittel
Post Doctoral Researcher

My research interests include parliamentary behaviour, populism research, party and voter behavior as well as protest studies.