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The Prevalence of Populism in South America: Crafting Credible and Competitive Candidates


Populism is a recurring phenomenon in Latin America that periodically shows its face. Candidates utilizing populist tactics have won elections throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The overall consequences of these leaders are open to debate. In this dissertation, I ask: why do citizens in South America vote for populist candidates?

In answering this question, I improve the study of populism in a few ways. First, I discuss and trace the development of the concept of populism, and offer my operationalization of populism. I demonstrate that my particular project fills an important gap in the study of populism—namely that I systematically measure and score the populist behavior of presidential candidates, and examine the electoral success of these candidates.

Second, I conduct a continental statistical analysis which represents a comprehensive and theoretically driven attempt to analyze the electoral success of populist candidates. I tested five independent variables prominent in the literature, and my own original hypothesis. I find that South American citizens are motivated to vote for populist candidates as a result of their evaluations of government performance and sociodemographic factors that are politicized by candidates. Third, I explore the role campaign strategists play in elections, and how candidate traits affect the ability of electoral contenders to craft successful populist messages during the campaign. I find support for my argument that populists are most electorally successful when a confluence of candidate traits, campaign appeals, and electorate characteristics exist. The strength of this overlap rests on the credibility of the populist’s message that she will provide both symbolic and programmatic representation to citizens.

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