Welcome to the latest in our occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – the repeated finding that voters like local candidates:
Surveys have consistently found ‘localness’ to be one of the main criteria voters say they want in an election candidate. In each of five surveys between 1983 and 2005, voters ranked ‘to be from the local area’ or ‘to have been brought up in the area he or she represents’ (the precise question wording differed from survey to survey) as either the most important or the second most important characteristic that they were looking for in their MP.
More recent polling shows that the preference for the local trumps sex in voters’ priorities, even among women. In 2008 the polling company YouGov asked a sample of British adults whether they would prefer their MP to be a candidate of the same sex but who came from outside their area to a candidate of a different sex but who was local. Overwhelmingly, they said that they preferred the local over the outsider. Men preferred a local woman (76 per cent) to a man from outside the area (6 per cent), with 18 per cent don’t knows. Women preferred a local man (75 per cent) over a woman from outside the area (5 per cent), with 20 per cent don’t knows. In other words, women said that they would prefer to be represented by a man as long as he was local rather than a woman if she came from outside the area, by a factor of 15 : 1. These findings were consistent, no matter what sub-set of voters was considered. Whether broken down by party support, age, social class or region, in every subgroup voters preferred the local candidate, even if they were of a different sex, to an outsider of the same sex.
As they go on to say,
It is obviously difficult to provide a definitive definition of what ‘local’ means in this context. Is it dependent on place of birth? Or schooling? Or residence? (And if so, for how long?) Or place of employment? Or service on the local council? Or even, as with some MPs, a dynastic link to a seat that their parents or grandparents previously held? And is it coterminous with the precise borders of the constituency, or with some broader area, such as a city or a region? The ‘local’ may also mean different things – and with a different intensity – in different parts of a country.
In practice what that means is that candidates who weren’t born in the area, or who even still live outside the area, are sometimes viewed by voters as “local” because they are seen in the area, they pick up issues in the area, they go to meetings in the area, they regularly talk to people in the area and so on.
Local isn’t just what your birth certificate or house keys say; it’s what you do.