Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Public Perceptions regarding the Authenticity of the 2012 Presidential Candidates

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Public Perceptions regarding the Authenticity of the 2012 Presidential Candidates

Article excerpt

Today, it seems, politics is all about seeming authentic.

--Paul Krugman (2007)

Public perceptions regarding presidential candidates' personality traits play important roles in shaping vote choice (Markus 1982; Popkin 1991; Rahn et ah, 1990). Though a range of traits can matter, some popular accounts (e.g., Daum 2011; Goldberg 2008) and scholarly works (Edwards 2009; Jamieson and Waldman 2003; Liebes 2001; Louden and McCauliff 2004; Parry-Giles 2001) point to authenticity--or the lack thereof--as a key trait by which citizens judge political candidates. For example, commentators have speculated that President Ronald Reagan's perceived authenticity helped him gain votes from citizens who disagreed with him ideologically (Rosenbloom 2011). On the opposite side of the coin, observers have suggested that an "authenticity gap" damaged 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign (e.g., Balz 2012; Cillizza and Blake 2011; Fields 2012; Gerson 2012). Conventional wisdom also holds that candidates should strive to present authentic messages that resonate with their own political image (e.g., Beinart 2012; Kaplan 2012; Louden and McCauliff 2004).

Thus, understanding when and why citizens perceive presidential candidates and their messages as (in)authentic may help explain voter decisions. Yet little research has systematically investigated such perceptions (Louden and McCauliff 2004). This article draws on several new data sources specifically designed to do so. First, it uses data from a pilot Internet survey to develop the first direct survey measures for perceptions of candidate authenticity. Second, it uses data from a telephone survey conducted in May-June 2012 to analyze the role of political predispositions (political trust, external political efficacy, political interest, partisanship, and ideology) and media use (particularly television news use) in predicting respondents' perceptions of authenticity regarding three targets: political candidates in general, Barack Obama (who was running for reelection as president at the time of the survey), and Romney (who had effectively secured the Republican nomination at that point). Finally, it uses data from a question-wording experiment embedded in the same telephone survey to test how perceptions regarding the authenticity of a presidential candidate's message varied across its source (Obama or Romney) and substance (working for "the middle class" or "job creators"). Taken collectively, the findings shed new light on the nature and origins of perceptions regarding authenticity in the 2012 presidential campaign. Furthermore, they provide an empirical foundation for future research on the ways in which information about candidates may influence such perceptions as well as the potential role of authenticity perceptions in shaping how voters respond to campaign communication and, ultimately, make vote choices.

Authenticity and Political Campaigns

Many journalists, pundits, and even politicians argue that authenticity plays an important role in presidential campaigns, but they do not always agree among themselves on what the concept means. Some suggest that it has become "a code word for chimerical perceptions of simple American values and a simple, even rural middle-class American life," conveyed through signifiers such as casual attire, plain language, and even bowling prowess (Daum 2011). Others argue that it is "really just a label put on self-validation," under which "[p]rinciples and policy details take a back seat to the need to say 'there, there--I understand' to the voters" (Goldberg 2008). Still others suggest that the term has gradually lost any meaning through its frequent and varied use (Rosenbloom 2011).

Scholarly efforts to develop a clearer theoretical definition of authenticity in the context of political campaigns have focused on how candidates present themselves to the public as well as the processes by which they work to construct perceptions of authenticity. …

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