Political Behavior

, Volume 39, Issue 4, pp 883–908 | Cite as

Choosing the Right Candidate: Observational and Experimental Evidence that Conservatives and Liberals Prefer Powerful and Warm Candidate Personalities, Respectively

  • Lasse Laustsen
Original Paper


A comprehensive literature relates voters’ electoral decisions to their perceptions of candidates’ personalities. Yet the mechanisms through which voters are attracted to certain candidates and not to others remain largely unresolved. To answer this question, this article integrates two recent interdisciplinary insights. First, leader and candidate preferences are found to be strongly dependent on levels of contextual conflict. Second, individual differences in political ideology are shown to be rooted in psychological orientations leading conservatives and liberals to perceive society in fundamentally different ways: Conservatives tend to perceive the social world as dangerous and threatening, whereas liberals to a larger degree see society as a safe place characterized by cooperation. Based on this, it is predicted that conservatives and liberals will also prefer different candidate personalities. Specifically, conservatives are predicted to value candidate power and “strong leadership” more than liberals, whereas liberals are predicted to value candidate warmth more than conservatives. The prediction is supported observationally using the 1984–2008 American National Election Studies and experimentally in two original experiments conducted in the United States and Denmark. Consequences and scope conditions for trait-based voting are discussed.


Candidate traits Political ideology Candidate evaluation Vote choice Electoral behavior 



The author would like to thank Vin Arceneaux, John Bullock, Martin Bisgaard, Matt Levendusky, Michael Bang Petersen, Josh Robison, Rune Slothuus, and Kim Mannemar Sønderskov as well as the editor and three anonymous reviewers for constructive inputs and suggestions on earlier versions of the article. The paper has previously been presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the International Society for Political Psychology, at the 2013 annual meeting of the Danish Political Science Association, in the Sidanius Lab (Harvard University), in the Center for Evolutionary Psychology (UC Santa Barbara), and in the section for political behavior and institutions (Aarhus University). The author thanks participants for their useful suggestions about the manuscript.

Supplementary material

11109_2016_9384_MOESM1_ESM.docx (411 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 411 kb)


  1. Alford, J., Funk, C., & Hibbing, J. (2005). Are political orientations genetically transmitted? American Political Science Review, 99(2), 153–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allison, P. D. (2009). Fixed effects regression models. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barker, D. C., Lawrence, A. B., & Tavits, M. (2006). Partisanship and the dynamics of “candidate centered politics” in American presidential nominations. Electoral Studies, 25(3), 599–610.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bartels, L. (2002). The impact of candidate traits in American presidential elections. In A. King (Ed.), Leaders’ personalities and the outcomes of democratic elections (pp. 44–69). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bishin, B., Stevens, D., & Wilson, C. (2006). Character counts? Honesty and fairness in election 2000. Public Opinion Quarterly, 70(2), 235–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bøggild, T., & Laustsen, L. (2016). An intra-group perspective on leader preferences: Different risks of exploitation shape preferences for leader facial dominance. The Leadership Quarterly. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.09.003.Google Scholar
  7. Campbell, A., Converse, P., Miller, W., & Stokes, D. (1960). The American voter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  8. Carmines, E., & D’Amico, N. (2015). The new look in political ideology research. Annual Review of Political Science, 18, 205–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Carney, D. R., Jost, J. T., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). The secret life of liberals and conservatives: Personality profiles, interaction styles, and the things they leave behind. Political Psychology, 29(6), 807–840.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Clarke, H., Sanders, D., Stewart, M., & Whiteley, P. (2004). Political choice in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Duckitt, J., & Sibley, C. (2010). Personality, ideology, prejudice, and politics: A dual-process motivational model. Journal of Personality, 78, 1861–1894.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Eriksson, K., & Funcke, A. (2013). A below-average effect with respect to American political stereotypes on warmth and competence. Political Psychology, 36(3), 341–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Feldman, S. (2013). Political ideology. In H. Leonie, D. O. Sears, & J. S. Levy (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of political psychology (pp. 591–626). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Feldman, S., & Johnston, C. (2014). Understanding the determinants of political ideology: Implications of structural complexity. Political Psychology, 35(3), 337–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Feldman, S., & Stenner, K. (1997). Perceived threat and authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 18(4), 741–770.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fiske, S., Cuddy, A., & Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(2), 77–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Funk, C. (1996). The impact of scandal on candidate evaluations: An experimental test of the role of candidate traits. Political Behavior, 18, 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Funk, C. (1997). Implications of political expertise in candidate trait evaluation. Political Research Quarterly, 50(3), 675–697.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Funk, C. (1999). Bringing the candidate into models of candidate evaluation. Journal of Politics, 61, 700–720.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gass, N. (2015, October 14). Trump goes on the attack against Bernie. Politico. Retrieved October 17, 2016, from
  21. Goren, P. (2002). Character weakness, partisan bias, and presidential evaluation. American Journal of Political Science, 46(3), 627–641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Goren, P. (2007). Character weakness, partisan bias, and presidential evaluation: Modifications and extensions. Political Behavior, 29(3), 305–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hanmer, M., & Kalkan, K. (2013). Behind the curve: Clarifying the best approach to calculating predicted probabilities and marginal effects from limited dependent variable models. American Journal of Political Science, 57(1), 263–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hayes, D. (2005). Candidate quality through a partisan lens: A theory of trait ownership. American Journal of Political Science, 49(4), 908–923.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hayes, D. (2009). Has television personalized voting behavior? Political Behavior, 31, 231–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hayes, D. (2010). Trait voting in U.S. senate elections. American Politics Research, 38(6), 1102–1129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hibbing, J., Smith, K., & Alford, J. (2013). Predisposed. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Hibbing, J., Smith, K., & Alford, J. (2014). Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(3), 297–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hirsch, J., DeYoung, C., Xiaowen, X., & Peterson, J. (2010). Compassionate liberals and polite conservatives: Associations of agreeableness with political ideology and moral values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(5), 655–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jost, J., Federico, C., & Napier, J. (2009). Political ideology: Its structure, functions, and elective affinities. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 307–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kalmoe, N. (2013). From fistfights to firefights: Trait aggression and support for state violence. Political Behavior, 35, 311–330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kertzer, J., & Brutger, R. (2016). Decomposing audience costs: Bringing the audience back into audience cost theory. American Journal of Political Science, 60(1), 234–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kilburn, H. (2005). Does the candidate really matter? American Politics Research, 33(3), 335–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kinder, D. (1986). Presidential character revisited. In R. Lau & D. Sears (Eds.), Political cognition (pp. 233–255). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  35. Kinder, D., Peters, M., Abelson, R., & Fiske, S. (1980). Presidential prototypes. Political Behavior, 2, 315–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Laustsen, L., & Petersen, M. (2015). Does a competent leader make a good friend? Conflict, ideology and the psychologies of friendship and followership. Evolution and Human Behavior, 36, 286–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Laustsen, L., & Petersen, M. (2016). Winning faces vary by ideology: How nonverbal source cues influence election and communication success in politics. Political Communication, 33(2), 188–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Laustsen, L. & Petersen, M. B. (Forthcoming). Perceived conflict and leader dominance: Individual and contextual factors behind preferences for dominant leaders. Political Psychology.Google Scholar
  39. Levendusky, M. (2009). The partisan sort: How liberals became democrats and conservatives became republicans. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Little, A., Burriss, R., Jones, B., & Craig Roberts, S. (2007). Facial appearance affects voting decisions. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28, 18–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. MacWilliams, M. (2016, January 17). The one weird trait that predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter. Politico. Retrieved October 17, 2016, from
  42. Markus, G. (1982). Political attitudes during an election year: A report on the 1980 NES panel study. American Political Science Review, 76(3), 538–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Merolla, J., & Zechmeister, E. (2009a). Terrorist threat, leadership, and the vote: Evidence from three experiments. Political Behavior, 31, 575–601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Merolla, J., & Zechmeister, E. (2009b). Democracy at risk: How terrorist threats affect the public. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Miller, A., & Miller, W. (1976). Ideology in the 1972 election: Myth or reality-a rejoinder. American Political Science Review, 70(3), 832–849.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Nelson, M., & Shavitt, S. (2002). Horizontal and vertical individualism and achievement values: A multimethod examination of Denmark and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33(5), 439–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Oosterhof, N., & Todorov, A. (2008). The functional basis of face evaluation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(32), 11087–11092.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Oxley, D., Smith, K., Alford, J., Hibbing, M., Miller, J., Scalora, M., et al. (2008). Political attitudes vary with physiological traits. Science, 321, 1667–1670.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Peffley, M., Hurwitz, J., & Sniderman, P. (1997). Racial stereotypes and whites’ political views of blacks in the context of welfare and crime. American Journal of Political Science, 41(1), 30–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Petersen, M., & Aarøe, L. (2013). Politics in the mind’s eye: Imagination as a link between social and political cognition. American Political Science Review, 107(2), 275–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Popkin, S. (1994). The reasoning voter: Communication and persuasion effects in presidential campaigns (2nd ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Quindlen, A. (2000, August 14). It’s the cult of personality. Newsweek. Retrieved March 9, 2016, from
  53. Rule, N. O., Ambady, N., Adams, R. B., Jr., Ozono, H., Nakashima, S., Yoshikawa, S., et al. (2010). Polling the face: Prediction and consensus across cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Spisak, B., Homan, A., Grabo, A., & van Vugt, M. (2012). Facing the situation: Testing a biosocial contingency model of leadership in intergroup relations using masculine and feminine faces. The Leadership Quarterly, 23, 273–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. van der Eijk, C., Schmitt, H., & Binder, T. (2005). Left-right orientations and party choice. In J. Thomassen (Ed.), The European voter: A comparative study of modern democracies (pp. 167–191). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Winter, N. (2010). Masculine republicans and feminine democrats: Gender and American’s explicit and implicit images of the political parties. Political Behavior, 32, 587–618.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark

Personalised recommendations