Tactically clever or tactical error? An analysis of dirty campaigning in the German Federal Election and the impact on democracy


Political dirty campaigns have substantially increased since the right-wing populist AfD entered the German Bundestag. A new study by the University of Vienna explains the impact of such election campaigns on German voters' perception of democracy and what role partisanship plays in this context.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉ adriana.palloks@univie.ac.at)

Dirty campaigning was previously only known from the USA, but in Europe, too, political parties are increasingly making use of dirty campaigns with the aim of publicly defaming their political opponents. Communication researchers at the University of Vienna conducted a study to investigate German voters' perceptions of democracy in the context of dirty campaigning during the 2021 German federal election. 634 eligible German citizens over the age of 18 participated in the online survey, which asked them about their preference of different German political parties, dirty campaigning, perceptions of democracy and trust in politicians at two separate timepoints during the summer of 2021, prior to the election day (September 26, 2021).

In the run-up to the 2021 German federal election, dirty campaigns caused public stir: a poster campaign against Bündnis 90/Die Grünen accused the party of "climate socialism" and "eco-terrorism", while a campaign ad by the Social Democrats cast CDU leadership candidate Armin Laschet in a bad light. "Dirty campaigning involves behavior between political elites, which violates social norms and democratic values" study author Franz Reiter from the University of Vienna explains, "this includes political incivility, such as insults, or deceitful campaign techniques, such as illegal campaign financing or the manipulation of polls."

Uncivil campaigning and deceitful campaign techniques are increasingly relevant phenomena in politics and should therefore be examined in terms of their impact on democracy and from the perspective of citizens. In this study, Franz Reiter and Jörg Matthes explored the perceptions of German voters regarding the campaigns of parties during the German federal election in 2021, to find out what impact dirty campaigning has on the following democratic aspects: distrust in politicians, trust in democracy, attitudes toward legal regulation of dirty campaigning, and the perceived detrimental effects of dirty campaigning on the quality of democracy. In a two-wave panel survey, the responses of 634 German citizens eligible to vote were collected via an online questionnaire. Respondents were queried on their party preference and their attitude toward dirty campaigning, depending on whether it was practiced by their least or most preferred party.

What consequences do citizens expect from dirty campaigning?

Even if the least favored party uses dirty campaigning, citizens do not immediately start to distrust politicians or lose trust in democracy. However, they do expect that such campaign methods of these parties could have harmful consequences for democracy. On the other hand, if respondents perceive dirty campaigning techniques on the part of their preferred party, they do not perceive them as harmful to democracy. However, if dirty campaigning is perceived as a threat to democracy, this may foster distrust in politicians and increase the desire for stricter regulation of dirty campaigning. Also, those who fundamentally distrust politicians perceive dirty campaigning as harmful and support regulatory measures.  

Dirty campaigning is acceptable to many – as long as it comes from the "right" party

Among the respondents, the least favorite party was perceived to use dirty campaigning more frequently than the most favorite party at both polling times. "Our findings show that dirty campaigning by the least favorite party increases the perception that dirty campaigning is harmful for a democracy, while dirty campaigning by the most favorite party has the opposite effect: It decreases the perception that dirty campaigning is harmful for a democracy", Reiter elaborates. "Furthermore, our findings indicate that dirty campaigning by the most favorite party decreases the attitude toward stronger regulation of dirty campaigning", he continues. 

Voters' double standard could benefit preferred parties  

"Based on these findings, could we conclude that dirty campaigning can have positive implications for the quality of a democracy? Rather not, as citizens may develop a double standard, because they may accept dirty campaigning by the most favorite party, whereas they may dislike dirty campaigning by the least favorite party. In this regard, political parties may use dirty campaigning to specifically convince voters. This may be problematic, as there are concerns that dirty campaigning can contribute to a toxic political atmosphere", the communication researcher concludes. However, further studies are needed to corroborate these findings.

Publication details

Reiter, F., & Matthes, J. (2022). How partisanship matters: A panel study on the democratic outcomes of perceived dirty campaigning. Politics and Governance, 10(4), 247-260. doi:10.17645/pag.v10i4.5672 (Image © Marvin Machler)

Franz Reiter is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna since 2019. (Image © Anja Stevic | AdMe)


Jörg Matthes is Professor of Communication and Vice-Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. (Image © Christian von Sikorski | AdMe)