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Personal Politicians: Biography and its Role in the Minds of Voters

  • Author(s): Goggin, Stephen Nicholas
  • Advisor(s): Lenz, Gabriel
  • et al.
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Abstract

Despite the central role of politicians in representative democracies, political science has largely ignored how who candidates for elected office are shape campaigns and elections. By communicating biographical details about their family, occupation, education, religion, and other background, political candidates attempt to build trust and alter how they will be evaluated by voters. Using systematized biographies of all US congressional candidates from 2008-2014, television advertising data from 2008-2012, and six survey experiments, including four panel experiments, I demonstrate that biographical presentation by candidates is ubiquitous, systematic, and effectual in shaping the opinion of voters.

To assess biography’s role in campaigns and candidate evaluation, I address and provide solutions to a number of theoretical and measurement problems in existing literature using a diverse set of methodological strategies. Grounded in literatures in both political science and psychology, I focus on the nexus between the strategic behavior of electoral candidates and voters’ cognition. Because of the complexity of candidates’ biographies, many scholars have often overlooked them in favor of more parsimonious measurement strategies, often overlooking critical variation in candidate backgrounds. Indeed, many of the interesting hypotheses and findings about the role of biography lie not in broad main effects – but in its interaction with other characteristics of candidates, elections, districts, or voters.

I find that a diverse set of biographical attributes are associated with candidates’ partisan affiliation and particular types of campaigns, and are also independently related to electoral success. Candidates strategically present themselves to voters through television advertising, highlighting advantageous characteristics while glossing over others. In realistic over-time conjoint-style experiments, I find that biographical factors independently affect evaluations of candidates alongside party and policy information. I also find that the role biography plays in voters’ cognition is affected by its importance to voters, its memorability, its timing and order of presentation, and its conformance to party stereotypes.

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This item is under embargo until August 22, 2020.