Which parties use simple language in their campaign messages and do simple campaign messages resonate with voters’ information about parties? This study introduces a novel link between the language applied during election campaigns and citizens’ ability to position parties in the ideological space. To this end, we investigate how complexity of campaign messages varies across parties and how it affects voters’ knowledge about party positions. Theoretically, we suggest that populist parties are more likely to simplify their campaign messages to demarcate themselves from mainstream competitors. Voters in turn should perceive and process simpler campaign messages better and, therefore, have more knowledge about the position of parties that communicate simpler campaign messages. We present and validate a measure of complexity and use it to assess the language of manifestos in Austria and Germany (1945-2013). It shows that political parties in general use barely comprehensible language to communicate their policy positions. However, differences between parties exist and we find support for our conjecture about populist parties, as they employ significantly less complex language in their manifestos. Second, we find evidence that individuals are better able to place parties in the ideological space if parties use less complex campaign messages. Our findings lead to greater understanding of mass-elite linkages during election campaigns and have important consequences for the future analysis of manifesto data.
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Key finding: Populist parties simplify the language in their manifestos. This tends to help voters to correctly place parties and their positions in the ideological space.