PaperLink (coming soon)
Abstract: We evaluate how traditional parties may respond to populist parties on issues that are particularly fitting for populist messages. The testing ground is the 2020 Italian referendum on the reduction of members of Parliament (MPs). We implement a large-scale field experiment, with almost one million impressions of programmatic advertising in 300 small municipalities. Our treatments are video ads against voting “Yes” to the MPs reduction, a constitutional reform pushed forward by the populist Five Stars Movement. We administer both an “informative” video on the likely costs of cutting MPs—aimed at deconstructing the populist narrative—and a “reducing-trust” video—aimed at attacking the credibility of populist politicians. Our field experiment shows that the latter video is more effective at capturing the viewers' attention. Both videos decrease voters’ turnout and, to a lesser extent, the “Yes” votes. These results show that programmatic advertising is a cost-effective tool to demobilize voters. And that it is easier to convince voters leaning toward populist parties to abstain, rather than winning them back to vote for traditional parties. In other words, demobilization works better than persuasion, although this strategy may have detrimental effects on political participation and social cohesion.
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