The power of personality : candidate-centered voting in comparative perspective



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More and more, elections around the world seem to be won or lost on the basis of the candidates’ personal qualities rather than their policies. Despite its prevalence in new and established democracies alike, we still know very little about what explains such candidate-centered voting. This study moves our understanding of this issue by examining variation in candidate-centered voting across individuals and electoral contexts in recent presidential elections in the United States, Brazil, and Mexico.

I argue that candidate-centered voting is largely an information problem. At the individual level, I focus on the conditioning role of political sophistication, arguing that voters with higher levels of political sophistication engage in less candidate-centered voting due their increased capacity to manage the more cognitively demanding types of information related to policy and performance. Moving beyond the individual level, I consider how candidate-centered voting may vary across electoral contexts as well. In particular, I consider how the institutionalization and structure of political competition shape the cognitive demands on voters, making it more or less difficult for voters to evaluate candidates on bases other than their personalities.

To test these arguments, I estimate models of voters’ electoral utilities and vote choices using electoral survey data from the U.S. (2008), Brazil (2002), and Mexico (2000 and 2006). Overall, the empirical analysis supports my individual-level argument regarding political sophistication’s conditioning role. As political sophistication increases, the dominance of candidate considerations in voters’ electoral decisions tends to decrease. Likewise, comparisons in the level of candidate-centered voting across the elections under study suggest that certain aspects of the institutionalization and structure of political competition may help explain contextual variation in candidate-centered voting.