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