Why the ideal candidate is a local GP (who preferably left school at 18)

by Stephen Tall on November 16, 2014

There’s an interesting article in Political Studies journal by Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley which attempts to find out ‘What Voters Want’. Published last year, it looks specifically what they want in terms of the characteristics of their candidates.

The core of the study consisted of six split-sample internet surveys. Each survey involved respondents reading two short profiles about hypothetical candidates, and then answering four questions about those candidates. Following Kira Sanbonmatsu, our research design included profiles of two candidates (Sanbonmatsu, 2002), whom we (initially) called John and George:


John Burns is 48 years old, and was born and brought up in your area, before going to university to study for a degree in physics. After university John trained as an accountant, and set up a company ten years ago; it now employs seven people. John has interests in the health service, the environment, and pensions, and is married with three children.

George Mountford is 45 years old; he lives in the constituency and studied business at university.He is a solicitor and runs a busy local practice. George is passionate about education, with two children in local schools and a wife who is a primary school teacher.

John and George are plausible election candidates in a British election; they are both middle-aged men, in professional occupations, and although we alter these profiles throughout the experiment, the biographies remain those of plausible candidates.

In the baseline survey, John was preferred to George on all three measured traits — approachability, experience and effectiveness — by a consistent 16% and as the overall preferred candidate by 21%. Campbell and Cowley then started varying the characteristics of the candidates while maintaining their overall biographies to see how voters would respond…

Biological sex:

John became Sarah.
Result? “changing the candidate’s sex – and nothing else – generated a 12-percentage-point increase in their lead on approachability, and a 19-point decrease in their lead on experience but had no statistically significant impact of sex on the candidate’s perceived effectiveness or preference for the candidate.”

Apparent religion:

one candidate was given an apparently Jewish name (‘Daniel Goldstein’), and the second an apparently Muslim name (‘Mohamed Lafi’). Again, nothing else in the profiles was altered.
Result?
“The effect of making one of our imaginary candidates Jewish was relatively small … The religion of candidates mattered more when one of the candidates appeared to be Muslim. This effect, though, was more complicated than might have been expected. John increased his relative lead over George/Mohamed on all three candidate traits (and by a statistically significant amount) but this was as a result of the ratings of both John and Mohamed falling but at a differential rate, with the percentages of respondents preferring neither candidate increasing on every question.”

Occupation:

solicitor George became (1) a GP and (2) a politico.
Result?
“In the original comparison John was preferred to George by 21 points; George the GP, however, became the preferred candidate of respondents with a lead of 6 points, a 27-point change in the overall standing of the two candidates … Making George a politico had a huge effect on how voters perceived his experience relative to that of John, but less dramatic changes elsewhere. … respondents clearly recognised the extra experience that a candidate who had a background in politics would enjoy, but they did not then especially reward it when it came to deciding which candidate they preferred overall.”

Age:

45 year-old George was made either younger (32) or older (60).
Result?
“There was little impact in terms of respondents’ overall preferences … Respondents … [judged] the candidates differently in terms of their experience (and in a way that was intuitively reasonable: perceiving a 32-year-old as less experienced than a 45-year-old, and a 45-year-old as less experienced than a 60-year-old), but they did not then see it as important when determining which candidate they preferred overall.”

Residential status:

local George’s residency was changed to (1) having moved into the constituency two years previously, and (2) to living some 120 miles away but being prepared to move to the constituency if elected.
Result?
“Explicitly identifying that [George] had moved there recently had the effect of increasing … John’s position as the preferred candidate by some 12 points … The effect was even more dramatic when we made George live outside the constituency. This … produced a 30-point increase in [John’s] position as the preferred candidate. These are huge differences, all statistically significant, and the largest of any of the tests we carried out.”

Educational status:

university-educated George was changed to either (1) having left school at 18, and (2) having gained a PhD.
Result?
“The less educated version of George was seen as less experienced (John’s lead increasing by some 17 points), but in every other way he was seen as a better candidate than the university-educated version. … The version of George with a PhD was perceived to be slightly more approachable, but on other traits a higher level of education merely made him seem less experienced and less effective, and produced no difference at all when it came to who was the preferred candidate.”

Their conclusion:

Our interest here is in the overall relative impact of the characteristics and while we found that all six of the cues we tested had some statistically significant impact on the way voters perceived candidates, we found particularly large effects with education, occupation (with candidates who had served as a local doctor being highly rated) and residency (with candidates from outside the local area being especially heavily penalised).

These are summarised highlights of their research. You can read their paper in full here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.