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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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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

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Keywords

  • Political knowledge
  • Character traits
  • Presidential approval
  • Experiments