Skip to main content

Candidate Authenticity: ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’

‘Today you are You,

That is truer than true.

There is no one alive who is Youer than You’ – (Dr. Seuss 1959)


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  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.


  1. Aaldering, L., & Van Der Pas, D. (forthcoming). Political leadership in the media: Gender bias in leader stereotypes during campaign and routine times. British Journal of Political Science, accepted.

  2. Aarts, K., Blais, A., & Schmitt, H. (Eds.). (2013). Political leaders and democratic elections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Akkerman, A., Mudde, C., & Zaslove, A. (2013). How populist are the people? Measuring populist attitudes in voters. Comparative Political Studies, 47(9), 1324–1353.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Allen, N., & Birch, S. (2011). Political conduct and misconduct: Probing public opinion. Parliamentary Affairs, 64(1), 61–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Allen, N., Birch, S., & Sarmiento-Mirwaldt, K. (2018). Honesty above all else? Expectations and perceptions of political conduct in three established democracies’. Comparative European Politics, 16(3), 511–534.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Alvarez, M., & Nagler, J. (1998). When politics and models collide: Estimating models of multiparty elections. American Journal of Political Science, 42(1), 55–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bartels, L. (2002). Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior, 24(2), 117–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Benoit, W. L., & McHale, J. P. (2003). Presidential candidates’ television spots and personal qualities. Southern Communication Journal, 68(4), 319–334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bittner, A. (2011). Platform or personality—The role of leaders in democratic elections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  10. Brewer, P. R., Hoffman, L. H., Harrington, R., Jones, P. E., & Lambe, J. (2014). Public perceptions regarding the authenticity of the 2012 presidential candidates. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 44(4), 742–757.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Buendgens-Kosten, J. (2014). Authenticity. ELT Journal, 68(4), 457–459.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Campbell, R. (2017), Authenticity. BBC analysis.

  13. Campbell, A., Converse, P., Miller, W., & Stokes, D. (1966). Elections and the political order. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Caza, Arran, Bagozzi, Richard P., Wooley, Lydia, Levy, Lester, & Caza, Brianna Barker. (2010). Psychological capital and authentic leadership: Measurement, gender and cultural extension. Asia-Pacific Journal of Business Administration, 2(1), 53–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Clapp-Smith, R., Vogelgesang, G. R., & Avey, J. B. (2009). Authentic leadership and positive psychological capital: The mediating role of trust at the group level of analysis. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 15(3), 227–240.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Clarke, N., Jennings, W., Moss, J., & Stoker, G. (2018). The good politician. Folk theories, political interaction, and the rise of anti-politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  17. Clarke, H. D., Whitely, P., Sanders, D., & Stewart, M. (2004). Political choice in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  18. Colton, A. (2018). The trap of political authenticity. The Outline.

  19. Conger, J. A., Kanungo, R. N., & Menon, S. T. (2000). Charismatic leadership an follower effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21(7), 747–767.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Coppock, A., & McClellan, O. A. (2019). Validating the demographic, political, psychological, and experimental results obtained from a new source of online survey respondents. Research and Politics, 6, 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Costa Lobo, M., & Curtice, J. (Eds.). (2015). Introduction. In Personality politics? The role of leader evaluations in democratic elections (pp. 1–16). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Dalton, R. (2008). The quantity and quality of party systems: Party system polarization, its measurement, and its consequences. Comparative Political Studies, 41(7), 899–920.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Dassonneville, R., Feitosa, F., Hooghe, M., Lau, R. R., & Stiers, D. (2019). Compulsory voting rules, reluctant voters and ideological proximity voting. Political Behavior, 41(1), 209–230.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Dassonneville, R., & Stiers, D. (2018). Electoral volatility in Belgium (2009-2014). Is there a difference between stable and volatile voters? Acta Politica, 53(1), 68–97.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Dr. Seuss (1959). Happy birthday to you. New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Dumitrica, D. (2014). Politics as ‘customer relations’: Social media and political authenticity in the 2010 municipal elections in Calgary, Canada. Javnost—The Public, 21(1), 53–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Funk, C. (1999). Brinking the candidate into models of candidate evaluation. Journal of Politics, 31(3), 700–720.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Garzia, D. (2017). Voter Evaluation of Candidates and Party Leaders. In K. Arzheimer, J. Evans, & M. S. Lewis-Beck (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of electoral behaviour (Vol. 2, pp. 633–653). London: Sage.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  29. Goren, P. (2007). Character weakness, partisan bias, and presidential evaluation: Modifications and extensions’. Political Behavior, 29(3), 305–325.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Grow, G., & Ward, J. (2013). The role of authenticity in electoral social media campaigns. First Monday, 18(4).

  31. Hagel, N. (2017). Truth, the self, and political critique: Authenticity and radical politics in 1960s America. Polity, 49, 220–244.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Hayes, D. (2005). Candidate qualities though a partisan lens: A theory of trait ownership. American Journal of Political Science, 49(4), 908–923.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Hencke, D. (1996), Short Flays Blair’s ‘Dark Men’. The Guardian,

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

    Google Scholar 

  35. Ilies, R., Morgeson, F. P., & Nahrgang, J. D. (2005). Authentic leadership and Eudaemonic well-being: Understanding leader-follower outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 373–394.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Iyengar, S., & Krupenkin, M. (2018). The strengthening of Partisan affect. Political Psychology, 39(S1), 201–218.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Jones, B. (2016). Authenticity in political discourse. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 19(2), 489–504.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Kearney, R. (1994). Modern movements in European philosophy (2nd ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  40. King, A. (2002). Do leaders’ personalities realy matter? In A. King (Ed.), Leaders’ personalities and the outcomes of democratic elections (pp. 1–44). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  41. Kuran, T. (2016). The authenticity deficit in modern politics. Cato Unbound.

  42. Laustsen, L., & Bor, A. (2017). The relative weight of character traits in political candidate evaluations: Warmth is more important than competence, leadership and integrity. Electoral Studies, 49, 96–107.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Layman, G. C., Carsey, T. M., & Horowitz, J. M. (2006). Party polarization in American politics: Characteristics, causes, and consequences. Annual Review of Political Science, 9, 83–110.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Leary, M. (2016). Psychology shows why we shouldn’t elect ‘authentic’ candidates like Donald Trump. Quartz.

  45. Lewis-Beck, M. S., & Nadeau, R. (2015). Between leadership and charisma, the importance of leaders. In M. Costa Lobo & J. Curtice (Eds.), Personality politics? The role of leader evaluations in democratic elections (pp. 169–190). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Lewis-Beck, M. S., & Tien, C. (2018). Candidates and campaigns: How they alter election forecasts. Electoral Studies, 54, 302–308.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. McAllister, I. (2007). Personalization of politics. In R. Dalton & H.-D. Klingemann (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of political behavior (pp. 571–588). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  48. 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), 952–974.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Merolla, J. L., Ramos, J. M., & Zechmeister, J. M. (2007). Crisis, charisma, and consequences: Evidence from the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Politics, 69(1), 30–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Merolla, J. L., & Zechmeister, E. J. (2011). The nature, determinants, and consequences of Chávez’s Charisma: Evidence from a study of Venezuelan Public Opinion. Comparative Political Studies, 44(1), 28–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Michail, J. (2018). The authenticity of Jacinda Ardern. International Policy Digest.

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

    Google Scholar 

  53. Miller, A. H., Wattenberg, M. P., & Malanchuk, O. (1986). Schematic assessments of presidential candidate. American Political Science Review, 80(2), 521–540.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Moore, C. (2017). Mrs May no longer winning the battle for authenticity—Mr Corbyn Is. The Telegraph.

  55. Mudde, C. (2004). The populist zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 542–563.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2017). Populism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  57. Mughan, A. (2000). Media and the presidentialization of parliamentary elections. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  58. Müller, J.-W. (2017). What is Populism?. UK: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Parry-Giles, S. J. (2014). Hilary clinton in the news: Gender and authenticity in American politics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  60. Pew Research Center. (2019). Public Trust in Government: 1958-2019. Pew Research Center.

  61. Poguntke, T., & Webb, P. (Eds.). (2005). The presidentialization of politics. A comparative study of modern democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Potter A. (2017). What if Donald Trump is an authentic Douchebag? In Due Course.

  63. Prysby, C. (2008). Perceptions of candidate character traits and the presidential vote in 2004. PS: Political Science and Poltics, 41(1), 115–122.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Rico, G., & Anduiza, E. (2019). Economic correlates of populist attitudes: An analysis of nine European Countries in the aftermath of the great recession. Acta Politica, 54(3), 371–397.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Shamir, Boas, & Eilam-Shamir, Galit. (2005). ‘What’s your story?’ A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 395–417.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Simons, N. (2015). Nigel Farage Sounds ‘More Authentic’ Than Us, Warns Labour’s Margaret Hodge. Huffington Post.

  67. Sparrowe, Raymond T. (2005). Authentic leadership and the narrative self. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 419–439.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Starr, P. (2016). ‘Spare Us from Authenticity’. Cato Unbound.

  69. Stiers, D. (2019). Beyond the distinction between incumbency and opposition: Retrospective voting at the level of political parties. Party Politics, 25(6), 805–816.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Umbach, M., & Humphrey, M. (2018). Authenticity: The cultural history of a political concept. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  71. Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. M., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dieter Stiers.

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 125 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 61 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Stiers, D., Larner, J., Kenny, J. et al. Candidate Authenticity: ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’. Polit Behav 43, 1181–1204 (2021).

Download citation


  • Authenticity
  • Candidate traits
  • Political candidates
  • Elections