Running for office? What voters think of your income

Welcome to the latest in my occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – how voters prefer people who earn less rather than more.

The findings come from research presenting the details of two fictional candidates to voters and asking them what they thought of each. Details of one of the fictional candidates were then altered to see how that changed the reaction of voters.

Here is what voters were initially told about that person:

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 mathematics. After university John set up his own computer software business, from which he takes a salary of around £28,000 per year. John has interests in the health service, the environment, and pensions, and is married with three children.

Voters were also given another fictional person and asked how they compared:

Without knowing which party they stand for, which of them do you think would be:

More approachable as an MP
More experienced as an MP
More effective as an MP
Which would you prefer as your MP

Other voters were then given the same comparison, but this time told that John Burns earned £100,000 per year from his business rather than £28,000. Do you think his ratings rose (shows he is more successful at running a business than if he is on £28,000 perhaps) or fell (rich and out of touch perhaps)?

The answer… they plummeted. And then they dropped even further when his income was put up to £1 million a year. On “which would you prefer as your MP”, John won the initial comparison with 52%. That fell to 29% when his income was raised to £100,000 and fell once more to 24% when it was £1 million.

As Phil Cowley and Rosie Campbell (who conducted the research) say:

So money hurts – and a lot of money hurts a lot.  It would be perfectly plausible for voters to have rewarded candidates for being financially successful – on the basis that someone who had succeeded for themselves might be exactly the sort of person you would want advocating for you. But there is no evidence of that at all.  In each of the six pairs of candidates presented in this experiment, the public went for the candidate with the lower salary.  As levels of income rise, the damage seems to be particularly severe when it comes to the candidate’s perceived approachability (which may not be that much of a surprise), but the problem for the financially successful is there is no counter-balancing benefit in terms of perceived experience or effectiveness.

In reality, the downside of successfully setting up a business that earns you a significant amount of money is probably less than the research shows, as a successful person will most likely have accumulated various pieces of evidence other than their salary that can be successfully used in their own campaign: industry awards won, local jobs created and so on. Even so, it’s a stark decline in ratings that such a candidate has to overcome – if, of course, the public know their income.

You can read the other posts in our What do the academics say? series here.

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