What do the academics say? The voters still want local candidates

Welcome to the latest in my occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – a new piece of research by Phil Cowley and Rosie Campbell, looking at how voters react to various hypothetical candidates.

The research involved giving different groups of people descriptions of two imaginary candidates and asking them which they prefer. The descriptions were varied between the groups so that the impact of changing, for example, their profession can be seen.

What do they find? That being local matters:

We compare the impact of candidates’ sex, religion, age, education, occupation and location/residence through a survey experiment in which respondents rate two candidates based on short biographies. We find small differences in the ratings of candidates in response to sex, religion, age and education cues but more sizeable effects are apparent for the candidate’s occupation and place of residence. Even once we introduce a control for political party into our experimental scenarios the effect of candidate’s place of residence continues to have a sizeable impact on candidate evaluations…

Our experiment with the sex of the candidate produced a 2-percentage-point difference in the overall preference of voters. Our experiment with religion produced at most a 4-point difference.When it came to age, the largest effect was 6 points. However, when we came to examine the effect of education we managed to produce a 23-point difference in the overall preferred candidate; testing occupation* produced a 27-point difference; testing the residential location of the candidate produced an even bigger 30-point difference.

(* The occupation test was only a very limited one, as you can see in the full research paper at the foot of this post.)

Phil Cowley, this time with Sarah Childs, found evidence of a similar pro-local effect in research published in 2011:

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.

Taking a different research tack, but reaching a similar conclusion, was the journal paper I reported on at the start of the year:

In this paper, we [analyse] the British General Election of 2010 and the British Election Survey, together with geographical data from Ordnance Survey and Royal Mail, to test the hypothesis that candidate distance matters in voters’ choice of candidate. Using a conditional logit model, we find that the distance between voter and candidates from the three main parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) matters in English constituencies, even when controlling for strong predictors of vote choice, such as party feeling and incumbency advantage.

One point to note about ‘local’ in this research – it isn’t the same as ‘born and lived there for 50 years’. That is, being local is something candidates can acquire. In practice, acquiring the aura of localness is done in the context of what the opposition say about you too, so simply moving in the day before nominations close and having a local address on the ballot paper is unlikely to be sufficient. But moving in a few years ahead of time and working the constituency hard is the pattern which many have followed.

Read the research paper here…


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


One response to “What do the academics say? The voters still want local candidates”

  1. A very interesting paper indeed. Makes me review what I’d include and exclude in a personal profile, it would appear in the past that I’ve not maximised my appeal to the voters! Should be required reading for anyone interested in standing for office. Good stuff.

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