Candidate Authenticity: ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’


In recent electoral contests, political observers and media outlets increasingly report on the level of “authenticity” of political candidates. However, even though this term has become commonplace in political commentary, it has received little attention in empirical electoral research. In this study, we identify the characteristics that we argue make a politician “authentic”. After theoretically discussing the different dimensions of this trait, we propose a survey battery aimed at measuring perceptions of the authenticity of political candidates. Testing our measure using data sets from different countries, we show that the answers to our items load on one latent concept that we call “authenticity”. Furthermore, perceptions of candidate authenticity correlate strongly with evaluations of political parties and leaders, and with vote intention, while they are empirically distinguishable from other traits. We conclude that candidate authenticity is an important trait that should be taken into account by future research.

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  1. 1.

    Figures from April 2019, for instance, show that only 17% of Americans trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’ (Pew Research Center 2019).

  2. 2.

    “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s viral campaign video was a masterclass in authenticity” (Colton 2018), “What if Donald Trump is an authentic douchebag?” (Potter 2017), “Nigel Farage Sounds ‘More Authentic’ Than Us, Warns Labour’s Margaret Hodge” (Simons 2015), “Mrs May is no longer winning the battle for authenticity—Mr Corbyn is” (Moore 2017), “The Authenticity of Jacinda Ardern” (Michail 2018).

  3. 3.

    A commercial news data base that contains 35,000 news sources in 200 countries. [Consulted December 2018].

  4. 4.

    Replication files (including data and code) for all analyses presented in this paper and the online appendix, are available at the Political Behavior Dataverse:

  5. 5.

    When a politician exerts democratically antithetical values authentically, they may gain support among a part of their parties’ supporters that adhere to such values. However, two cautionary notes need to be made here. First, one’s “true self” can be at odds with core democratic values to such an extent that it decreases overall public support. Second, by no means do we argue that authenticity is only beneficial for increasing support among in-partisans. As with other traits that can be conceived desirable, authenticity can increase support among many, if not all, parts of the electorate, due to the reasons discussed above.

  6. 6.

    In a search of the New York Times online archive from 1 January 1981 to 8 April 2019, the phrases “authentic” and “populist” appear together in 318 articles.

  7. 7.

    See Online Appendix C for a list of such statements, used in our research.

  8. 8.

    For a recent comprehensive comparative collection on political leadership characteristics and democratic elections, see Aarts et al. (2013).

  9. 9.

    With this item, we are capturing perceptions of whether a candidate has convictions. These convictions may be judged “good” or “bad”; however, the test item is value-neutral in that regard, simply assessing whether the candidate is perceived to act from some conviction he or she holds. This then differentiates it from the “honest” and “moral” items that are used for other standard measures, such as integrity.

  10. 10.

    Initially, we phrased this item as follows: ‘candidate X’s public persona is the same as their private persona’. When we fielded the pilot study, the respondents seemed to be able to respond to all the questions about one candidate. However, in the Welsh and the Scottish data, we recorded very high numbers of missing values (i.e., “don’t know” answers) on the last item—even for the better-known candidates. In the Danish data we obtained even higher levels of missing answers (see Online Appendix B). Apparently, respondents were not able to judge the private persona of political candidates, or they did not understand the word “persona” itself. Hence, as this item seems to be problematic and listwise deletion would result in the loss of many observations, we exclude this item from the analyses reported below. Furthermore, as an alternative, and following the suggestion by an anonymous reviewer, we replaced the question with the current item in the survey fielded in the U.S. In this survey, we were also able to distinguish respondents not knowing the candidate from respondents knowing the candidate but not being able to answer the question. This showed us that, of the respondents knowing each respective candidate, about 20% were not able to answer this last question (see Online Appendix B). While this proportion is lower than that for the original question, it is still somewhat higher than that of the other items. Hence, future studies might want to look for alternatives to improve the measure of this dimensions of authenticity even more.

  11. 11.

    In the U.S. survey, we used a slightly adjusted scale: (1) strongly disagree, (2) disagree, (3) somewhat disagree, (4) neither agree nor disagree, (5) somewhat agree, (6) agree, (7) strongly agree.

  12. 12.

    We also conducted a pilot study among first year bachelor students in political science at KU Leuven (Belgium). The students seemed to be able to answer all our questions, and the answers seemed to be substantially correlated and to load onto one latent factor.

  13. 13.

    Note that here we report analyses based on a long data set. The full tables—for every candidate separately—are included in Online Appendix D.

  14. 14.

    We do not include the results of the Belgian data, as there were only two authenticity items included.

  15. 15.

    Note that we work with a long data set. The full tables—for every candidate separately—are included in Online Appendix E.

  16. 16.

    In Denmark, we do not have candidate evaluations, so we use the evaluation of their respective parties.

  17. 17.

    We also tested whether authentic behavior brings politically disenchanted voters back into the process. As a preliminary test, we included in each model an interaction between perceptions of authenticity and political interest. The results, reported in Online Appendix G, show that there is a strong correlation between authenticity and general evaluations for the least interested voters, and there is no evidence for a significant difference at higher levels of interest. Hence, it seems like perceptions of authenticity work in the same way for interested and uninterested voters alike.

  18. 18.

    Note that we do not include the Spanish data in this analysis, as the traits were measured with one item only.

  19. 19.

    We also conducted the factor analysis for the U.S. data on those items that were included in Belgium as well. The results are reported in Online Appendix K.

  20. 20.

    In principle, these models are problematic, as the different traits that are included as independent variables are strongly correlated. Therefore, rather than attempting to present a full model of the vote, we estimate fixed-effects conditional logit models only including the variables of specific interest here.

  21. 21.

    Note that we only include the U.S. data in these analyses, as only in this data set do we dispose of measures of different politicians.


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This study benefitted from the generous support of many people and institutions. The idea for this project originated in the 2017 edition of the Leuven-Montréal Winter School on Elections at KU Leuven which was attended by all authors. We thank Kees Aarts for the initial idea to work on this topic. We thank Roger Awan-Scully, Rune Stubager, Marc Hooghe, and Jordi Muñoz, for kindly agreeing to include our questions in their surveys. We presented this project at several occasions, including the MPSA annual conference (2018), the APSA annual meeting and exhibition (2018, 2019), and the ISPP annual meeting (2019). We thank all participants for their suggestions and feedback, and are specially grateful to Mary Stegmaier, Itumeleng Makgetla, Lasse Laustsen, Quinn Albaugh, and Ruth Dassonneville. We also thank the editors and three anonymous reviewers of the journal for their very valuable feedback. For research funding, we acknowledge the support of the Canada Research Chair in Electoral Democracy. Stiers acknowledges the financial support of the Research Foundation Flanders. Breitenstein acknowledges the support through an FPI Grant (BES-2015-072756) from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitivity and the European Social Fund, and the Projects “Political Change in Spain: Populism, Feminism and new dimensions of conflict” (CSO2017-83086-R) and “LIMCOR: Limits to political corruption” (Fundació La Caixa 2016 ACUPO177).

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Stiers, D., Larner, J., Kenny, J. et al. Candidate Authenticity: ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’. Polit Behav (2019) doi:10.1007/s11109-019-09589-y

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  • Authenticity
  • Candidate traits
  • Political candidates
  • Elections