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Platform or Personality?The Role of Party Leaders in Elections$

Amanda Bittner

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199595365

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199595365.001.0001

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The impact of the partisan stereotype

The impact of the partisan stereotype

Chapter:
(p.73) Chapter Five The impact of the partisan stereotype
Source:
Platform or Personality?
Author(s):

Amanda Bittner (Contributor Webpage)

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199595365.003.0005

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the extent to which a characteristic possessed by leaders — namely, the party label under which they run — has an influence on how they are perceived by voters. Building on a literature that suggests that parties tend to ‘own’ issues, this chapter examines the possibility that trait ownership may exist as well. The analysis suggests that the party label does indeed act as a cue, and points to the existence of a partisan stereotype. This partisan stereotype exists even when accounting for a voter's level of political sophistication, as voters perceive leaders of conservative parties to hold strengths in the competence dimension, while left leaders are perceived to have strengths on the character dimension. Voters of all political stripes perceive leaders' traits according to this partisan stereotype.

Keywords:   partisan stereotype, trait ownership, cue, conservative, left, competence, character, party label, traits, political sophistication

Introduction

Chapter 4 demonstrated the impact that characteristics intrinsic to voters (socio-demographic characteristics, ideology, partisanship, and issue attitudes) can have on evaluations of party leaders. This chapter explores the impact of characteristics intrinsic to the leader by examining the impact of a leader's party label. We want to determine, for example, to what extent voters perceive Conservative leaders in a certain way simply because the leaders are Conservative.

There is plenty of reason to believe that the party label provides a cue to the voter, who can then use this information to form his or her impressions of the leader (Conover and Feldman 1989; McDermott 1997, 1998). As I suggested earlier, past research has shown that people will use whatever information they have in order to make a decision. Indeed, when voters have almost no information, they will still find a way to assess party leaders, even if that means considering the leaders' looks alone (Riggle et al. 1992).

The party label of the leader can thus provide important information to voters that will influence the way that they perceive the leader. The party label gets applied as a stereotype when voters are confronted by party leaders, and determines (to a large extent) how leaders will be perceived by voters. When we examine past research on the role of stereotypes and cues in perceptions of the political world (including the evaluations of party leaders), the evidence suggests that we ought to expect these partisan stereotypes to influence perceptions (Conover and Feldman 1989; Rahn 1993; McDermott 1997, 1998). When we take it one step further and examine the data in more depth, the evidence of the existence of a partisan stereotype becomes unmistakable. The following analyses will illustrate that partisan stereotypes cross national boundaries and because of them, leaders of Conservative parties are perceived more positively on traits related to their competence, and leaders of Left parties are perceived more positively on traits related to their character.

(p.74) Cues and Stereotypic Thinking

One of the earliest studies of voting behaviour found that most voters do not have a lot of interest in or knowledge about politics (Berelson et al. 1954). This study also found that both knowledge and interest were closely linked with a voter's level of education—that is, that the more educated tended to be more interested in and more knowledgeable about politics (Berelson et al. 1954: 25). These findings were confirmed and reinforced ten years later in a study that found that the public did not really understand basic political concepts (e.g. the meaning of left and right dimensions), and that voters' political ideas did not really link together or remain logically consistent, either across ideas or over time (Converse 1964). Put together, these findings are fairly devastating for dominant conceptions of democracy which expect individuals to have a basic understanding of politics in order to be able to articulate their own interests. What is the point of democracy if citizens lack coherent attitudes and beliefs?

While this picture seems quite bleak, the fact of the matter is that people do continue to participate in politics, even if they do not regularly read the New York Times, the Huffington Post, or the Manchester Guardian. Furthermore, there are a number of good reasons why most of us do not become political junkies. First, as cognitive psychologists have pointed out, ‘people have well-defined cognitive limits’ (Lau and Sears 1986). People do not have a very large active memory and they generally focus their attention narrowly regardless of the subject matter—political or other. These cognitive limits are not voluntary, but are actual limitations that exist on a neurological and physiological level. As a result, individuals might not actually ever be able to achieve the levels of knowledge or expertise that would satisfy traditional views of what is necessary for democracy to really work, even if they were to make concerted efforts to expand their knowledge of political events and issues. If psychologists are right, then the problem is not that individuals are not trying hard enough, but, rather, that they are physically unable to achieve the levels of knowledge that we demand of citizens.

The second main factor that may affect the levels of political knowledge possessed by the average voter comes from more of an economics and social science perspective. This perspective suggests that people are rational individuals who seek to maximize their benefits while minimizing their costs (Downs 1957). Because voters have other things to do besides think about politics and study campaign platforms—they have jobs, families, hobbies, and so on—it is not optimal, or even sensible, to spend too much time trying to accumulate all the information available. Jeffery Mondak summarizes this perspective nicely, suggesting that ‘correct decisions are preferable, but precision brings inefficiency; the citizen can form reliable judgements while simultaneously conserving valuable cognitive resources’ (Mondak 1993). Cutting corners is wise. Regardless of whether or not citizens are cognitively capable of incorporating more information (p.75) into their decisions, it is probably not rational to focus heavily on information gathering: it is more rational to try to come to a political decision based on as little information (and as little effort) as possible.

Because of research conducted in these two disciplines—cognitive psychology and economics—political scientists have come to some understanding of how voters cope with both their cognitive limits as well as the necessities of efficiency in order to make reasoned decisions. In particular, political scientists have turned to concepts developed in cognitive psychology with regards to the storage and retrieval of information to inform our understanding of the process of political decision-making. One possibility is that because of their limited capabilities for dealing with information, people use information that they have already stored to arrive at their decisions (Conover and Feldman 1989). Another option is that individuals may be able to make use of information shortcuts, or heuristics, to come to reasoned decisions even when they lack full information (Brady and Sniderman 1985; Lau and Redlawsk 1997).

Among the many heuristics or shortcuts that individuals may make use of (see Lau 2003 for a detailed description of different types of heuristics), two things are particularly relevant for the process of evaluating party leaders. First is the application of ‘partisan and ideological schemata’,1 which suggests that when voters do not have a lot of information about a leader, they will categorize them according to existing political schemata. They will then assume that new information is consistent with the existing schemata, decide whether they feel positively or negatively about the category (whether the category is ‘Republican’, women, people of a particular ethnic minority or class, or something else), and apply that same feeling to the individual; we call this ‘applying a category-based affect’ (Lau 2003). Second, individuals may apply ‘person stereotypes’ in which factors such as age, gender, race, and physical appearance will inform a voter's impression of the candidates. So for example, this theory predicts that women will be perceived to be more concerned and skilled with compassion issues (such as social welfare programmes or programmes for children) since women are traditionally considered to be more compassionate than men (McDermott 1998). Leaders are thus assumed to fit existing stereotypes and preconceived notions about specific groups.

It has been suggested that ‘our notions about what groups are like strongly influence how we appraise individual members of these groups’ (Rahn 1993), and that ‘in partisan elections, the most powerful cue provided by the political environment is the candidate's membership in a particular political party. Even if voters know nothing else about a candidate, the ballot provides them with one important piece of information’ (Rahn 1993). The party label, therefore, provides (p.76) information to voters that will assist in the decision-making process. This partisan stereotype is different from the effect of the voter's own partisanship. It is certainly the case that voters may rely upon their own partisanship to make inferences about candidates' positions as well. This type of projection effect occurs in extremely low information settings where voters project their own issue positions (and/or partisanship) onto their preferred candidate (Conover and Feldman 1989), assuming that their favourite candidate feels just like they do.

The effect of the partisan stereotype is different from a projection effect in that the party label of the leader provides information to the voter, information that the voter then uses to ascribe issue positions and values to that candidate—the individual is not simply projecting his or her own attitudes onto the leader. Where voters lack the information that would allow them to wade through competing candidates' issue positions and platforms in order to decide how they feel about candidates and who to vote for, they will rely upon readily available cues (including the party label of the candidate) in order to be able to make decisions (Kinder 1978; Conover and Feldman 1989; Rahn 1993; McDermott 1997, 1998, 2005).

Existing Stereotypes about Parties

The use of partisan stereotypes may be a fairly reliable way to ‘simplify the political environment’ (Rahn 1993), because parties differ in what are largely predictable ways. Studies of parties and elections in the United States suggest that parties tend to ‘own’ issues (Budge and Farlie 1983; Rabinowitz and MacDonald 1989; Petrocik 1996; Petrocik et al. 2003), and that voters consistently perceive parties to have specific kinds of strengths and weaknesses. Petrocik's discussion details the types of strengths parties are perceived to hold:

Democrats are seen as better able to handle welfare problems. Perceptions of the parties on social issues (e.g. crime and protecting moral values) favor the GOP.2 The data also document the GOP's hold on foreign policy and defense through the late 1980s. Opinions were mixed on economic matters, but were generally a GOP asset (by an average of about 13 points). Government spending, inflation, and taxation were also Republican issues. (Petrocik 1996)

Recent research suggests that much like issue ownership, party leaders are perceived to have strengths in certain personality traits in the American context as well (Hayes 2005). The idea is that certain executive characteristics have policy content, and much as parties may ‘own’ issues, their party leaders tend to ‘own’ related traits.

(p.77) The basic logic behind trait ownership is fairly intuitive, and emerges from the nature of electioneering itself. Because parties generally have an advantage in their issue areas (whether compassion issues as Democrats or taxation policies as Republicans), candidates will emphasize their party's issues (Petrocik 1996; Simon 2002; Petrocik et al. 2003; Sides 2006). When you combine the party's heavy focus on its own issue strengths with the media's heavy focus on the leaders of those parties (Gidengil and Everitt 2000; Mendelsohn 1993, 1994, 1996), issue ownership is translated into the ownership of related personality traits. Then, stereotypes will emerge: unless shown otherwise, ‘voters will usually assume that a Democratic candidate is more liberal than conservative, that he/she favors social programs over defense programs, while Republicans are, for the most part, defense “hawks” who support lower taxes and smaller government’ (McDermott 1998). Stereotypes about party positions are therefore applied to representatives of those parties. As a result of these stereotypes about a leader's stance on certain policies or platforms, stereotypes about traits also emerge: ‘Republicans appear to own leadership and morality, while Democrats own compassion and empathy’ (Hayes 2005). According to Hayes, voters expect leaders of these parties to have strengths in these areas, and if they are found lacking, they are likely to be penalized.

These perceptions about the types of characteristics leaders ought to possess may have deeper origins than simple media coverage of party messages. They may be rooted in basic political attitudes and values of voters themselves. Conservatives have been found to ‘…believe that man is not naturally good, [be] superstitious, and prefer hierarchical social structures. They think highly of order, authority, and duty’ (Ray 1973). The fact that Conservative leaders are expected to possess traits related to order, authority, and duty suggests something about the way that voters link parties to these basic political values and attitudes. In The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and his colleagues note the susceptibility of certain types of personalities towards authoritarian values. They suggest that ‘…it will be granted that opinions, attitudes, and values depend on human needs, and since personality is essentially an organization of needs, then personality may be regarded as a determinant of ideological preference’ (Adorno et al. 1950, emphasis in original). While they do not specifically focus on the way that we evaluate party leaders, Adorno et al. point to an important link that can be drawn between individual political views and the way that we perceive party leaders—in particular, the way that we feel leaders should be. Voters have particular ideas about the types of characteristics that party leaders ought to possess, and there is no reason to believe this is purely an American phenomenon.

Parties to the right of the political spectrum (not just the American Republican party) ought to be seen as more conservative than liberal, and more generally supportive of lower taxes and smaller government. If leaders' traits flow from a party's issue ownership, then we ought to expect that leaders of right of centre parties should be perceived to be tougher, less empathetic, and more moralistic. At the same time, (p.78) leaders of parties on the left side of the spectrum should possess traits like compassion and empathy, because of their perceived strengths in welfare and social issues. Again, there is no reason to believe that the partisan stereotype should apply only in the American context. Parties play up their strengths in election campaigns around the world, and thus a similar effect ought to exist across national boundaries. If voters make use of these partisan stereotypes as a short-cut or heuristic, then we ought to expect less sophisticated voters to be most likely to evaluate leaders according to the partisan stereotypes: ‘since this information is readily available while other political information is costly, we would expect voters in low information conditions to use these cues when voting’ (McDermott 1998). Stereotypes abound, and stereotypes about party leaders ought to be no different. The party label, a characteristic intrinsic to party leaders, should have an influence on the way voters perceive and evaluate them.

Impressions of Leaders' Traits

An examination of the cross-national data supports these expectations. Voters do perceive leaders through a partisan lens, and this stereotype is not only an American phenomenon. Consistently, across varying electoral contexts, voters perceive leaders of Conservative and Left parties to have specific types of personality strengths, and these perceptions are based solely on the party label of the leader. Conservative leaders are generally rated more positively on the competence dimension, while Left party leaders are generally rated more positively on the character dimension. This partisan stereotype exists even when we control for the partisanship of the voter, so it is not merely a projection effect whereby those who feel an attachment or an affinity to the Left party imagine that their leaders must possess these characteristics. Partisans of different parties see the leaders in the same stereotypic way.

Across Countries and Over Time, Conservative Leaders are More ‘Competent’, Left Leaders have More ‘Character’

The nature of the partisan stereotype starts to emerge even with some very basic statistical analyses. Leaders of Left parties are consistently rated more highly on the character dimension, while leaders of Conservative parties are rated more highly on the competence dimension. Figure 5.1 illustrates this trend: the left hand side of the figure depicts evaluations of competence of the leaders of Conservative, Centre-Left, and Left parties, while the right side depicts average perceptions of their character.

(p.79)

                   The impact of the partisan stereotype

Figure 5.1 Summary Statistics: Evaluations of Leaders of Three Main Party Leaders' Competence and Character

The line in the middle of each box represents the median rating of leaders' competence or character. As the figure makes clear, there are distinct differences in how respondents perceive different leaders on the two dimensions. While the lines display medians, the mean evaluations of leaders on each of the two dimensions corroborate the story. The average competence rating is 0.584 for Conservative leaders, 0.572 for Centre-Left leaders, and 0.534 for Left leaders. The average character rating is 0.537 for Conservative leaders, 0.542 for Centre-Left leaders, and 0.644 for Left leaders. These numbers indicate that there is a clear hierarchy, where leaders of Left parties are seen to be strongest on the character dimension, while leaders of Conservative parties are perceived to be strongest on the competence dimension.

The graph is fairly simple, but the pattern is clear. Importantly, the pattern remains consistent even when a more sophisticated analysis is conducted, as shown in Table 5.1. This table presents the impact of the party label on evaluations of party leaders.

The impact of the party label is statistically significant and illustrates that Conservative leaders are rated slightly more negatively than Centre-Left leaders on the character dimension, while Left leaders are rated substantially more positively than Centre-Left leaders on this same dimension. At the same time, Conservative leaders are rated more positively on the competence dimension and Left leaders are rated more negatively than Centre-Left leaders on this dimension. The hierarchy illustrated in Figure 5.1 is thus supported when we examine the impact of the party label on evaluations of leaders.

One potential flaw in this analysis is that the evaluation of leaders based on these two dimensions of character and competence may be skewed by a single trait within one of these two categories; if a trait was strongly evaluated according to the stereotype, it might ‘overwhelm’ the evaluations of other traits in this category, making the stereotype seem more prominent than it really is. However, when we (p.80)

Table 5.1 Effects of Party Label on Evaluation of Leader's Traits

Character

Competence

Conservative leader

−0.004

0.028

(0.001)

(0.001)

Left leader

0.109

−0.040

(0.002)

(0.002)

Centre-Left leader (reference)

Number of observations

301,649

299,463

Number of clusters

138,079

137,816

R-squared

0.12

0.11

Stacked Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression analysis.

Robust standard errors in parentheses (clustered on the individual).

Fixed effects (dummy variables for each election study) included in the model.

Coefficients significant at minimum 5 per cent level in bold.

look more closely at specific traits within each of the two dimensions, it becomes clear that these relationships are not simply inflated by perceptions of leaders on any particular trait. Table 5.2 compares the difference in average evaluations of leaders of the three main parties on the ten most frequently asked personality traits across both dimensions. All coefficients are statistically significant with the exception of one, and indicate that not only do voters assess leaders within a partisan stereotype across dimensions as a whole, but that they also regularly do so when evaluating individual traits as well.

Each column in the table represents a comparison between leaders of two of the three party types. The third column displays the stereotype most clearly, since it

Table 5.2 Differences in Means on Evaluations of Most Frequently Asked Traits (T-Tests)

Conservative vs. Centre-Left

Centre-Left vs. Left

Conservative vs. Left

Competence

Leadership

0.047

0.016

0.150

Cares

−0.077

−0.091

−0.254

Knowledgeable

−0.052

0.022

0.043

Intelligent

−0.008

0.059

0.062

Inspiring

0.034

0.030

0.015

Character

Honest

0.056

−0.079

−0.024

Compassionate

−0.013

−0.041

−0.139

Trustworthy

0.011

−0.057

Arrogant

0.011

0.170

0.152

Moral

−0.034

−0.122

−0.165

(p.81)
                   The impact of the partisan stereotype

Figure 5.2 Evaluations of Leaders' Competence and Character: Comparing Leaders of Three Main Parties to Average of All Leaders

shows the comparison of evaluations of Conservative leaders with evaluations of Left leaders. Conservative leaders score substantially higher than Left leaders on ‘competence’ traits, including leadership, knowledgeable, intelligent, and inspiring, while Left leaders are rated more positively than Conservative leaders on ‘character’ traits, including cares, honest, compassionate, trustworthy, arrogant, and moral. Evaluations of Centre-Left leaders generally fall somewhere in between the two, where Left leaders still rank more highly on character traits and Conservative leaders rank more highly on some competence traits.3

The existence of the partisan stereotype is not simply a pattern of one or two elections in one or two countries. Generally speaking, when voters are asked to evaluate leaders from all three of these party types, they tend to perceive them through this partisan lens, across individual elections within a single country, as well as from one country to the next. Figure 5.2 shows the average ratings of leaders of the three major parties, comparing their ratings to the average ratings of leaders from all of the parties—not just the three main parties—evaluated in each election.

The left side of the figure graphs evaluations of leaders' competence, while the right side graphs evaluations of leaders' character. Elections are ordered in relation to the extent to which the ratings of the leaders fit the partisan stereotype: as we (p.82) move towards the far right of each graph, Conservative leaders receive the highest ratings on the competence dimension in comparison to all other leaders, and Left leaders receive the highest ratings on the character dimension in comparison to all other leaders. The graphs illustrate that evaluations of the leaders of Left and Conservative leaders generally fit the partisan stereotype when respondents are asked to evaluate all three: elections in which evaluations fit the stereotype outnumber elections where they do not.

When voters are asked to evaluate the leaders of all three parties, they perceive them through the partisan lens. The partisan stereotype does not emerge quite as clearly, however, in elections where voters were not asked to evaluate leaders from all three party types.4 This suggests that the act of comparison itself might make a difference in activating respondents' perceptions of the partisan stereotype. Indeed, comparison is an explicit part of the activation of cues according to Conover (1981). She suggests that voters will look at a field of candidates and note the obvious differences between them, including differences of partisanship. She states:

Contextual factors such as the minority status of one candidate as compared to others—be it ideological, partisan, racial, or sexual in nature—may encourage voters to apply the stereotype associated with the minority group to the individual…the ‘conservative label’, for example, should be a more salient cue in a field of candidates in which one is a conservative and the rest are moderates and liberals. (Conover 1981: 433)

These findings support those of other scholars who suggest that the act of comparison is key to the activation of stereotypes. Rahn et al. (1990) run their candidate models in two ways: first, separately for each candidate; and second, using comparative scores for judgements. They find that the comparative model is more accurate and suggest that ‘the entire judgemental process appears to be comparative’ (1990: 119). So when we evaluate leaders, we (perhaps even subconsciously) evaluate them in comparison to one another. The influence of the partisan stereotype emerges in this context as a key factor differentiating Conservative and Left party leaders, but not Centre-Left party leaders.5

It is not entirely clear what exactly is activating this partisan stereotype besides comparison itself. What does seem clear, however, is that this partisan stereotype is not simply partisanship by another name. When we control for the partisanship of the voter, the existence of the partisan stereotype becomes even more evident. Table 5.3 shows an expanded analysis which assesses the impact of both the partisanship of the voter as well as the party label of the leaders on evaluations of (p.83)

Table 5.3 Effects of Voters' Partisanship and Leaders' Party on Evaluations of Personality Traits

Character

Competence

Centre-Left partisans

Centre-Left PID and Conservative leader

−0.072

0.004

(0.002)

(0.003)

Centre-Left PID and Left leader

0.144

0.002

(0.003)

(0.003)

Centre-Left PID and Centre-Left leader

0.163

0.142

(0.002)

(0.003)

Conservative partisans

Conservative PID and Conservative leader

0.177

0.204

(0.003)

(0.003)

Conservative PID and Left leader

0.149

−0.037

(0.003)

(0.004)

Conservative PID and Centre-Left leader

−0.043

−0.05

(0.003)

(0.003)

Left partisans

Left PID and Conservative leader

−0.039

0.079

(0.005)

(0.005)

Left PID and Left leader

0.289

0.161

(0.005)

(0.005)

Left PID and Centre-Left leader

0.019

−0.013

(0.005)

(0.005)

Non-partisans

No PID and Conservative leader

0.007

0.054

(0.003)

(0.003)

No PID and Left leader

0.087

−0.02

(0.003)

(0.003)

No PID and Centre-Left leader

0.006

0.021

(0.003)

(0.003)

Other partisans

Other PID and Conservative leader

−0.067

0.045

(0.008)

(0.009)

Other PID and Left leader

0.135

0.021

(0.01)

(0.011)

Other PID and Centre-Left leader (reference)

Number of observations

185,242

182,668

Number of clusters

80,441

80,014

R-squared

0.24

0.2

Stacked Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression analyses.

Robust standard errors in parentheses (clustered on the individual).

Fixed effects (dummy variables for each election study) included as controls but coefficients not shown.

Coefficients significant at minimum 5 per cent level in bold.

(p.84) their character and competence. There are five groups of partisans—Centre-Left, Conservative, Left, non-partisans (those claiming to be either independents or to have no partisan affiliation), and partisans of ‘other’ parties (including centre-right parties, right parties, green parties, sectional parties, and others). The coefficients in the table represent the ratings of the leaders of each of the three main party types, across all five partisan groups.

A number of important observations need to be made about the numbers presented in Table 5.3. First, there is a clear and overwhelming effect of individual-level partisanship. That is, all partisans view the leader of their own party more positively than the leaders of other parties. Individuals identifying with a Conservative party view Conservative leaders most positively on both dimensions, and this pattern is repeated for Centre-Left partisans' evaluations of Centre-Left leaders and for Left partisans' evaluations of Left leaders. This makes sense, given what we know about the incredible importance of partisanship in explaining voting behaviour (e.g. Campbell et al. 1960). Once we account for the partisanship of the voter, however, the stereotype emerges clearly again: after their own leader, partisans of the three main parties rate Conservative leaders most highly on competence, and Left leaders most highly on character. So while voters still perceive the leader of their own party most positively, they rate the remaining leaders according to the partisan stereotype.

Perceptions of leaders follow the stereotype most clearly among both non-partisans and ‘other’ partisans. Non-partisans rate Left leaders most positively on the character dimension and Conservative leaders most positively on the competence dimension. Partisans of other parties do the same. The fact that this behaviour is evident among non-partisans and ‘other partisans’ provides strong evidence that voters really do perceive leaders according to a partisan stereotype, and that the patterns emerge not simply because voters perceive the leaders of their own parties in a positive light. Furthermore, these models include sampling weights and fixed effects in order to ensure that no one study is skewing the results. The results of this analysis illustrate that, in general, voters believe that Conservative leaders are more competent than others and that Left leaders have more character than other leaders do. The party label itself provides information to voters, leading them to evaluate leaders accordingly.

Partisan Stereotype: More Than Just a Shortcutfor the Least Informed

The literature on stereotyping and the use of cues, including partisan cues, suggests that voters will tend to make use of them when information is not readily available. McDermott suggests that:

(p.85)

                   The impact of the partisan stereotype

Figure 5.3 Summary Statistics: Evaluation of Leaders of Three Main Parties' Character and Competence, by Level of Political Sophistication

even in low-information elections, voters inadvertently obtain basic information about the candidates such as party identification and incumbent/challenger status. Cues such as these can help voters make decisions in an otherwise uncertain situation. Through past experience and stored knowledge, voters can make reasonable assumptions about the ideology of a candidate based on associations with salient political or social groups. In other words, voters use candidate cues as cognitive shortcuts…(McDermott 1997)

While McDermott suggests that the shortcuts will allow voters to guess the views of candidates, it is reasonable to assume that voters will also employ the shortcuts to allow them to evaluate their traits as well.

This means that those who are less knowledgeable should rely on the use of shortcuts; low sophisticates ought to perceive leaders through the lens of the partisan stereotype more than high sophisticates, since they lack the information that would allow them to really distinguish leaders from the party label. Surprisingly, this is not what appears to occur. The data show that those who are more politically sophisticated perceive leaders according to the stereotype to a greater degree than do those who are less sophisticated. These results suggest that the partisan stereotype may not simply be an information shortcut available to help less informed voters evaluate competing candidates, but that something different is also taking place at a higher level. It is also possible that low sophisticates know so little about different parties that it is unlikely that as many would be able to come to general stereotypes surrounding what each party label should represent.6

Figure 5.3 replicates the graphs in Figure 5.1, this time comparing the evaluations of leaders made by the less sophisticated to those made by more sophisticated voters. The graph on the left compares competence ratings of the three main party leaders among the 25 per cent of voters ranked the least politically sophisticated and the 25 per cent of voters ranked the most politically sophisticated. (p.86) The graph on the right does the same for ratings of the leaders' character. These box plots quite clearly suggest that the high sophisticates are more likely to perceive leaders as conforming to the partisan stereotype than the low sophisticates: the hierarchy of evaluations of the three leaders is most clear among the more informed. Among the least politically sophisticated, respondents give average ratings of 0.582 to Conservative leaders, 0.591 to Centre-Left leaders, and 0.552 to Left leaders. In contrast, among the most sophisticated, respondents give average ratings of 0.615 to Conservative leaders, 0.562 to Centre-Left leaders, and 0.488 to Left leaders. Less sophisticated respondents perceive Centre-Left leaders' competence slightly more positively than the more sophisticated do. The perceived differences between party leaders are stronger among the high sophisticates, and Conservative leaders are more highly rated on competence. Perceptions follow the stereotype much more closely than they did among low sophisticates.

The same dynamic can also be seen in the right side of the figure. Within the least politically sophisticated group of respondents, the average character ratings ranged from 0.529 for Conservative leaders to 0.547 for Centre-Left leaders to 0.604 to Left leaders. Among the most politically sophisticated, in contrast, the distinctions between leaders are greater: average character ratings ranged from 0.526 for Conservative leaders to 0.533 for Centre-Left leaders to 0.648 for Left leaders. Thus while both groups (less sophisticated and more sophisticated) rate the Left leader most highly on character, the more sophisticated rate the Left leader even more highly and the leaders of the other two parties slightly lower than their least sophisticated counterparts.

These results hold when we control for the partisanship of the voter as well: respondents with higher levels of political sophistication perceive party leaders through the lens of the partisan stereotype more so than those with lower levels of political sophistication. Table 5.4 replicates the stacked regression analyses presented in Table 5.3, this time by level of political sophistication. As the table indicates, partisans still view the leader of their own party most favourably, regardless of their level of political sophistication. Furthermore, the impact of partisanship is stronger among the more politically sophisticated: those with higher levels of political sophistication rate the leader of their own party even more favourably than do those with lower levels of political sophistication. Partisanship is important for all voters, and especially more sophisticated ones.

While the effect of partisanship is stronger among the more sophisticated, the effect of the party label is also stronger. Table 5.4 includes a series of arrows indicating where the size of coefficients conforming to the partisan stereotype grows as we move from the less sophisticated group to the more sophisticated group. These arrows indicate that more sophisticated respondents almost always give higher stereotypic ratings to party leaders than do less sophisticated respondents. For example, among non-partisans, the less sophisticated respondents give Left party leaders a rating 0.065 points higher than the reference group (ratings of (p.87) the Centre-Left leader among ‘other’ partisans). Meanwhile, the most sophisticated non-partisans give Left party leaders a rating 0.132 points higher than the reference group. Similarly, the most sophisticated non-partisans give a rating 0.086 points higher than the reference group. With few exceptions, the more sophisticated are more likely to rate leaders in a way that is consistent with the partisan stereotype.

Among Left partisans the effect is particularly interesting. All Left partisans (regardless of level of political sophistication) rate their own leader most positively on the character dimension, which fits both with the influence of their own partisanship as well as the partisan stereotype. On the competence dimension, in contrast, the ratings of more politically sophisticated Left partisans appear to clash with partisanship, but are consistent with the partisan stereotype. Less politically sophisticated Left partisans give their own leader the highest rating on competence. More sophisticated Left partisans, however, give their own leader a substantially lower rating on this dimension, and instead give the highest rating to the Conservative leader. This behaviour suggests that the impact of the stereotype is even larger than partisanship among the most sophisticated Left partisans! Sophisticated Left partisans believe Conservative leaders to be more competent than leaders of their own party.

That the most politically sophisticated tend to perceive leaders in a manner most consistent with the partisan stereotype suggests that the stereotype is not simply a tool utilized by the least informed in order to distinguish between party leaders. Rahn (1993) does note that individuals are likely to continue to rely upon the partisan label even when other types of information about candidates are available, which suggests that increasing levels of sophistication do not necessarily change the preferred sources of information when voters evaluate candidates. Furthermore, these findings conform with findings of previous studies which suggest that the more sophisticated tend to use information shortcuts just as much as or even more than the least sophisticated (Cutler 2002; Sniderman et al. 1991).

It is also possible, however, that voters perceive leaders correctly when they apply the stereotype to their evaluations of voters: perhaps party leaders themselves actually conform to the partisan stereotype. The most sophisticated voters, who possess greater amounts of information about these leaders, are able to assign ratings that more closely match the ‘truth’, and this truth just happens to fit the stereotype. Arguably, for example, parties might select certain ‘types’ of people as leaders, and these types may fit the stereotype. More research is needed before we can really determine what exactly is happening. What seems fairly clear, however, is that the partisan stereotype is not simply a shortcut for the least informed. (p.88)

Table 5.4 Effects of Voters' Partisanship and Leaders' Party on Trait Evaluations, by Level of Political Sophistication

Character

Competence

Low sophistication

High sophistication

Low sophistication

High sophistication

Centre-Left partisans

Centre-Left PID and Conservative leader

−0.059

−0.164

−0.038

−0.049

(0.006)

(0.008)

(0.007)

(0.007)

Centre-Left PID and Left leader

0.125                   The impact of the partisan stereotype0.149

−0.003

−0.111

(0.008)

(0.007)

(0.010)

(0.007)

Centre-Left PID and Centre-Left leader

0.130

0.157

0.102

0.103

(0.007)

(0.007)

(0.006)

(0.006)

Conservative partisans

Conservative PID and Conservative leader

0.154

0.177

0.132                   The impact of the partisan stereotype0.218

(0.007)

(0.007)

(0.007)

(0.006)

Conservative PID and Left leader

0.145

0.144

−0.009

−0.188

(0.008)

(0.008)

(0.010)

(0.007)

Conservative PID and Centre-Left leader

0.017

−0.110

−0.041

−0.134

(0.008)

(0.007)

(0.008)

(0.006)

Left partisans

Left PID and Conservative leader

−0.019

−0.138

−0.011                   The impact of the partisan stereotype0.157

(0.015)

(0.010)

(0.018)

(0.010)

Left PID and Left leader

0.246                   The impact of the partisan stereotype0.324

0.158

0.06

(0.012)

(0.009)

(0.016)

(0.011)

Left PID and Centre-Left leader

0.010

0.025

−0.024

−0.131

(0.015)

(0.011)

(0.017)

(0.010)

Non-partisans

No PID and Conservative leader

0.001

−0.020

0.010                   The impact of the partisan stereotype0.086

(0.009)

(0.010)

(0.008)

(0.010)

No PID and Left leader

0.065                   The impact of the partisan stereotype0.132

−0.045

−0.106

(0.009)

(0.009)

(0.010)

(0.008)

No PID and Centre-Left leader

0.007

−0.032

0.002

−0.059

(0.009)

(0.009)

(0.008)

(0.008)

Other partisans

Other PID and Conservative leader

−0.046

−0.032

0.002                   The impact of the partisan stereotype0.046

(0.031)

(0.028)

(0.032)

(0.031)

Other PID and Left leader

0.127                   The impact of the partisan stereotype0.209

0.006

−0.107

(0.031)

(0.022)

(0.035)

(0.025)

Other PID and Centre-Left leader (reference)

Number of observations

44,169

53,880

42,594

53,477

Number of clusters

19,872

22,122

19,552

22,076

R-squared

0.16

0.30

0.10

0.29

Stacked Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression analyses.

Robust standard errors in parentheses (clustered on the individual).

Fixed effects (dummy variables for each election study) included as controls but coefficients not shown.

Coefficients in bold significant at a minimum level of 5 per cent.

(p.89)

(p.90) Conclusions

Past studies have pointed to the influence of the party label as a cue to be used in low-information settings, allowing individuals to ascribe issue positions to candidates when their actual positions are not known (Conover and Feldman 1989). Similarly, research on stereotypes and heuristics more generally has suggested that individuals will use information available to them (including partisan, racial, and gender stereotypes) in order to formulate opinions and make decisions when other types of information are not available (Rahn 1993; McDermott 1997, 1998). This chapter has confirmed that voters do make use of the party label when evaluating leaders, but that this process is not simply a low-information story in which voters only evaluate leaders because they lack other types of information.

The party label does transmit information to voters and a partisan stereotype does exist: respondents perceive the character of leaders of Left parties more positively, and they perceive the competence of leaders of Conservative parties more positively. Generally speaking, even when controlling for the partisanship of the voter, individuals consistently perceive party leaders as examples of the partisan stereotype. In contrast to expectations, however, the partisan stereotype is not simply a tool used by the least informed in order to compensate for a lack of information. The most politically sophisticated segment of voters evaluates party leaders in a fashion that conforms most strongly to the partisan stereotype, providing Left leaders with even higher character ratings and Conservative leaders with even higher competence ratings than the less sophisticated group. If voters are not simply using the party label as an information shortcut, what exactly is going on? Why do voters who are more informed use the stereotype more than those who are less informed? More research is needed to better understand how this stereotype is utilized.

Notes:

(1) See page 58 in Chapter 4 for a more detailed explanation what schemata are and how they work.

(2) GOP stands for ‘Grand Old Party’ and refers to the Republican Party.

(3) This result might provide some insight as to the lack of historical ‘success’ of centre-parties, as noted by Blais in his presidential address to the Canadian Political Science Association (2005). If voters' evaluations of party leaders do play an important role in the electoral success of a party, then Centre parties might be at a disadvantage on all fronts—Party leaders on either side appear to be evaluated more positively on some traits, leaving the Centre Party with a lack of overwhelmingly supportive evaluations of its leadership. This is something that should be studied in greater detail in the future.

(4) Results not shown.

(5) While Rahn et al.'s use of a comparative measure of evaluations to understand voter perceptions is reasonable in the American two-party system, in a multi-party system it makes more sense to code traits in relation to one leader at a time, as I have done in this study.

(6) I would like to thank Erin Aylward for suggesting this possible explanation.