“An Inherited Money Dude from Queens County”: How Unseen Candidate Characteristics Affect Voter Perceptions


We examine the effect of biographical knowledge on voters’ assessments of leaders. Prior research has shown that voters infer traits from candidate characteristics such as race, gender and incumbency, which are visible to even poorly-informed voters. Given voters’ limited knowledge, we argue that less-visible attributes may be easily misperceived, possibly affecting overall assessments of candidates. Focusing on President Trump, we find via a national survey that many Americans are unaware that he was born into great wealth. This misperception increases support for Trump, mediated through beliefs that he is both empathetic and good at business. We supplement our observational analysis with an experiment treating respondents with information regarding the role Trump’s father played in his career. This information leads respondents to rate the president more negatively on both empathy and business ability. These findings suggest that correcting information about candidate characteristics can change the minds of even loyal partisans.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


  1. 1.

    Fox Business Channel, August 23, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZOeqL2ZSWA.

  2. 2.

    “Trump lied to me about his wealth to get onto the Forbes 400. Here are the tapes.” Washington Post Apr. 20, 2018.

  3. 3.

    “Recovery Going into High, Says Youthful Bklyn Builder” Brooklyn Eagle July 10, 1938 p. 39, “House of 50 Features Shown” New York Daily News July 16, 1938. P. 9.

  4. 4.

    “Vet Charges Trump Hiked House Prices” Brooklyn Eagle July 17, 1946 p.1.

  5. 5.

    “Fred C. Trump, Postwar Builder of Housing for the Middle Class Dies at 93” New York Times June 28, 1999.

  6. 6.

    “For a Young Donald J. Trump Broadway Held Sway” New York Times March 6, 2016.

  7. 7.

    Trump’s False Claim he Built his Empire with a ‘Small Loan’ from his Father” Washington Post. March 3, 2016.

  8. 8.

    “Trump’s Father Helped GOP Candidate With Numerous Loans” Wall Street Journal September 23, 2016.

  9. 9.

    “Trump Castle Admits Gaming Law Violation” Los Angeles Times April 10, 1991.

  10. 10.

    “What's He Really Worth? New York Times October 23, 2005.

  11. 11.

    A LexisNexis search supports this. From 01/01/2016 to 11/07/2016, 107 newspaper articles (from the top 5 newspapers in circulation and the Washington Post) mentioned Fred Trump. By comparison 663 articles mentioned Donald Trump and the subject of divorce, and 452 articles mentioned Trump and the subject of Access Hollywood.

  12. 12.

    “Upper-middle class” was the second most popular selection across the three surveys, selected by 17% of respondents in the 2016 survey, 22% of respondents in the 2017 survey, and 32% of respondents in the 2018 survey. Complete distributions in Table A7 in the Online Appendix.

  13. 13.

    Clinton question and answer session, March 27, 1992.

  14. 14.

    The Washington Post, February 21, 2018.

  15. 15.

    NBC, Meet the Press Interview with Khizr Khan, July 31, 2016.

  16. 16.

    Gary Abernathy, The Washington Post, September 8, 2017.

  17. 17.

    According to a 2015 Gallup poll, only one percent of Americans classify themselves as “upper class”.

  18. 18.

    Donald Trump town hall, October 26, 2015.

  19. 19.

    Similar weights were unavailable for the 2016 SSI study. Full unweighted demographic frequencies for all three samples can be found in the appendix.

  20. 20.

    Full question wording can be found in the appendix.

  21. 21.

    Alternate analyses also controlled for certain presidential character traits, and the results hold in these models.

  22. 22.

    Coefficients from the probit model can be found in the appendix.

  23. 23.

    While the confidence bars in Figs. 3 and 4 occasionally overlap, treatment effects for both Democrats and Republicans reach conventional levels of statistically significance (at least p < 0.05, one-tailed test).

  24. 24.

    There were an insufficient number of independent voters to analyze independently (N = 96). Full results for Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters can be found in Table A5a of the Online Appendix.

  25. 25.

    Because our survey served many purposes beyond the experiment described here, we were unable to place a measure of general approval post-treatment.

  26. 26.

    Due to the unrepresentative nature of MTurk samples, we cannot claim with certainty the precise effect of our treatments on Trump job approval. Full details of the experiment are located in the appendix.

  27. 27.

    Cohn, Nate. “Why Turnout Shifts in Alabama Bode Well for Democrats.” New York Times, December 15, 2017.


  1. Aaldering, L., & Vliegenthart, R. (2016). Political leaders and the media. Can we measure political leadership images in newspapers using computer-assisted content analysis? Quality & Quantity, 50, 1871–1905.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Achen, C. H., & Bartels, L. M. (2016). Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Anson, I. G. (2018). Partisanship, political knowledge, and the dunning‐kruger effect. Political Psychology Online First.

  4. Barrett, W. (2016). Trump: The greatest show on earth. The deals, the downfall, the reinvention. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Berinsky, A. J. (2017). Rumors and health care reform: Experiments in political misinformation. British Journal of Political Science, 47(2), 241–262.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Berinsky, A. J., & Mendelberg, T. (2005). The indirect effects of discredited stereotypes in judgments of jewish leaders. American Journal of Political Science., 49(4), 845–864.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Blair, G. (2000). The trumps: Three generations that built an empire. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Campbell, R., & Cowley, P. (2014). What voters want: Reaction to candidate characteristics in a survey experiment. Political Studies., 62(4), 745–765.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Campbell, D. E., Green, J. C., & Layman, G. C. (2011). The party faithful: Partisan images, candidate religion, and the electoral impact of party identification. American Journal of Political Science., 55(1), 42–58.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Carnes, N., & Sadin, M. L. (2014). The “Mill Worker’s Son” heuristic: How voters perceive politicians from working-class families— and how they really behave in office. The Journal of Politics, 77(1), 285–298.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Converse, P. E. (2006). The nature of belief systems in mass publics (1964). Critical Review, 18(1–3), 1–74.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Cook, T. E. (1998). Governing with the news: The news media as a political institution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans know about politics and why it matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Dolan, K. (2004). Voting for women: How the public evaluates women candidates. Boulder: Westview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Dolan, K. (2014). Gender stereotypes, candidate evauations and voting for women candidates: What really matters? Political Research Quarterly., 67(1), 96–107.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Fox, R. L., & Oxley, Z. M. (2003). Gender stereotyping in state executive elections. Journal of Politics., 65(3), 833–850.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Funk, C. L. (1996). The impact of scandal on candidate evaluations: An experimental test of the role of candidate traits. Political Behavior, 18(1), 1–24.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Funk, C. L. (1999). Bringing the candidate into models of candidate evaluation. Journal of Politics, 61(3), 700–720.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS evening news, NBC nightly news, newsweek and time. New York: Vintage.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Gilovich, T., Griffin, D., & Kahneman, D. (2002). Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Goren, P. (2002). Character weakness, partisan bias, and presidential evaluation. American Journal of Political Science, 46, 627–641.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Graber, D. (1988). Processing in the news: How people tame the information tide. New York: Addison-Wesley Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Green, D. P., Palmquist, B., & Schickler, E. (2002). Partisan hearts and minds: Political parties and the social identities of voters. New Haven, CT: Yale UP.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Greene, S. (2001). The role of character assessments in presidential approval. American Politics Research, 29(2), 196–210.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Guess, A. & Coppock, A. (2018). Does counter-attitudinal information cause backlash? Results from three large survey experiments. British Journal of Political Science, in print online.

  27. Hayes, D. (2005). Candidate qualities through a Partisan lens: A theory of trait ownership. American Journal of Political Science, 49(October), 908–923.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Hayes, D. (2011). When gender and party collide: Stereotyping in candidate trait attribution. Politics & Gender, 7(2), 133–165.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Healy, A., & Malhotra, N. (2009). Myopic voters and natural disaster policy. American Political Science Review, 103(3), 387–406.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Holian, D. B., & Prysby, C. L. (2015). Candidate character traits in presidential elections. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Huddy, L., & Terkildsen, N. (1993). Gender stereotypes and the perception of male and female candidates. American Journal of Political Science., 37(1), 119–147.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Imai, K., Keele, L., & Tingley, D. (2010). A general approach to causal mediation analysis. Psychological Methods, 15(4), 309–334.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Iyengar, S., Sood, G., & Lelkes, Y. (2012). Affect, not ideology: A social identity perspective on polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73(1), 405–431.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Jerit, J., Barabas, J., & Bolsen, T. (2006). Citizens, knowledge, and the information environment. American Journal of Political Science, 50(2), 266–282.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Johnston, R., Hagen, M. G., & Jamieson, K. H. (2004). The 2000 Presidential election and the foundations of party politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Jones, P. E. (2014). Revisiting stereotypes of non-white politicians’ ideological and Partisan orientations. American Politics Research, 42(2), 283–310.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Karl, K. L., & Ryan, T. J. (2016). When are stereotypes about black candidates applied? An experimental test. Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics., 1(2), 253–279.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Kendall, K. E. (2000). Communication in the Presidential primaries: Candidates and the media, 1912–2000. Santa Barbara: Praeger Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Kinder, D. R. (1986). Presidential character revisited. In R. R. Lau & D. O. Sears (Eds.), Political cognition (pp. 233–255). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Kinder, D. R., & Kalmoe, N. P. (2017). Neither liberal nor conservative: Ideological innocence in the American public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Koch, J. W. (2000). Do citizens apply gender stereotypes to infer candidates’ ideological orientations? The Journal of Politics., 62(2), 414–429.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Kuklinski, J. H., Quirk, P. J., Jerit, J., & Rich, R. F. (2001). The political environment and citizen competence. American Journal of Political Science, 45(2), 410–424.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Lavine, H. G., Johnston, C. D., & Steenbergen, M. R. (2012). The ambivalent Partisan: How critical loyalty promote democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Lawless, J. L. (2004). Women, war and winning elections: gender stereotyping in the post-September 11th Era. Political Research Quarterly., 57(3), 479–490.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Lenz, G. S. (2012). Follow the leader? How voters respond to politicians’ performance and policies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Lupia, A. (1994). Shortcuts versus encyclopedias: Information and voting behavior in California Insurance reform elections. American Political Science Review, 88(1), 63–76.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  48. McCann, J. A. (1990). Changing electoral contexts and changing candidate images during the 1984 Presidential Campaign. American Politics Quarterly, 18(April), 123–140.

    Google Scholar 

  49. McConnaughy, C. M., White, I. K., Leal, D. L., & Casellas, J. P. (2010). A latino on the ballot: Explaining coethnic voting among latinos and the response of White Americans. The Journal of Politics, 72(4), 1–13.

    Google Scholar 

  50. McDermott, M. L. (1998). Race and gender cues in low-information elections. Political Research Quarterly., 51(4), 895–918.

    Google Scholar 

  51. McDermott, M. L. (2005). Candidate occupations and voter information shortcuts. The Journal of Politics., 67(1), 201–219.

    Google Scholar 

  52. McDermott, M. L., & Panagopoulos, C. (2015). Be all that can be: The electoral impact of military service as an information cue. Political Research Quarterly, 68(2), 293–305.

    Google Scholar 

  53. McDermott, M. L., Schwartz, D., & Vallejo, S. (2015). Talking the talk but not walking the walk: Public reactions to hypocrisy in political scandal. American Politics Research, 43(6), 1–23.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Miller, W. E., & Shanks, J. M. (1996). The new American voter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Mutz, D. (2006). Hearing the other side. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Nyhan, B., Porter, E., Reifler, J., & Wood, T. (2017). Taking corrections literally but not seriously? The effects of information on factual beliefs and candidate favorability. Unpublished manuscript.

  57. Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303–330.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Piston, S. (2010). How explicit racial Prejudice Hurt Obama in the 2008 election. Political Behavior, 34(2), 431–451.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Popkin, S. L. (1994). The reasoning voter: Communication and Persuasion in presidential campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American grace: How religion divides and unites US. New York: Simon and Schuester.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Redlawsk, D. P. (2002). Hot cognition or cool consideration? Testing the effects of motivated reasoning on political decision making. Journal of Politics, 64(4), 1021–1044.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Sanbonmatsu, K. (2002). Gender stereotypes and vote choice. American Journal of Political Science, 46(1), 20–34.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Schaffner, B. F., & Luks, S. (2018). Misinformation or expressive responding? What an inauguration crowd can tell us about the source of political misinformation in surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly., 82(1), 135–147.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Sigelman, C. K., Sigelman, L., Walkosz, B. J., & Nitz, M. (1995). Black candidates, white voters: Understanding racial bias in political perceptions. American Journal of Political Science., 39(1), 243–265.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 755–769.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Teigen, J. M. (2013). Military experience in elections and perceptions of issue competence: An experimental study with television ads. Armed Forces and Society., 39(3), 415–433.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Terkildsen, N. (1993). When white voters evaluate black candidates: The processing implications of candidate skin color, prejudice, and self-monitoring. American Journal of Political Science, 37(4), 1032–1053.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Special thanks to Shibley Telhami and Stella Rouse, the Directors of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, for providing the survey resources necessary to execute this research. We would also like to extend thanks to Frances Lee for providing helpful feedback on previous versions of this article, as well as Michael Hanmer and Zachary Scott for their guidance.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jared McDonald.

Ethics declarations

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

It was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 42 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

McDonald, J., Karol, D. & Mason, L. “An Inherited Money Dude from Queens County”: How Unseen Candidate Characteristics Affect Voter Perceptions. Polit Behav 42, 915–938 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09527-y

Download citation


  • Political knowledge
  • Character traits
  • Presidential approval
  • Experiments