Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Implications of Political Expertise in Candidate Trait Evaluations

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Implications of Political Expertise in Candidate Trait Evaluations

Article excerpt

Candidate trait images have an important impact on global judgment. The present study addresses (1) which traits matter in candidate evaluations and (2) political expertise differences in trait-based evaluations. An unweighted version of the on-line processing model would suggest that all traits impact the running tally in equal measure. Others have argued that some traits (in particular, more task-relevant traits) should matter more than others from a normative perspective. Furthermore, some past research has suggested that all individuals use traits in the same manner on the grounds that trait judgments of others are common in everyday experience. Greater cognitive complexity among political experts, however, would suggest that experts should be more likely to differentiate between traits in judgment. The present study uses an experimental design to manipulate candidate trait images on two dimensions: competence and warmth. Results show that candidate competence is preferred over warmth, although this preference is only evident among political experts. The pattern of results suggests that political experts make more distinctions between trait content dimensions, consistent with a greater cognitive complexity among experts. These results provide direct evidence that citizens distinguish among candidate trait qualities and tend to evaluate competence more favorably than warmth.

The losing politician often laments the warmth and charisma of his opponent. Richard Nixon complained bitterly of Kennedy's ability to win votes on style rather than substance. Gerald Ford, with less bitterness, complained of Carter's ability to charm the voters despite his relative inexperience in higher office. After Carter's image had changed, he too could lament the penchant of citizens to vote for the "Great Communicator" rather than the experienced officeholder in 1980 (see Henggeler 1995).

One conclusion to draw from these observations is that public images of candidates, especially the traits which characterize candidates, play an important role in mass politics. Empirical research supports a consequential role of traits in predicting vote choice for presidential as well as for House and Senate candidates (Kinder 1986; Markus 1982; Miller 1990; Miller and Miller 1976). Trait images of party leaders have also proven to be important predictors of vote preference even in countries with parliamentary systems (Bean 1993; Bean and Mughan 1989; Stewart and Clarke 1992). While trait images seem to matter in important ways, it is not clear which traits are critical for candidate evaluations. The observations above suggest that warmth and charisma win out over experience, or more generally, competence in office. Some past research on candidate evaluations, however, has suggested just the opposite. Citizens are expected to rely on competence in judgments of politicians, especially relative to traits such as warmth on the grounds that competence is particularly relevant to the task of judging political leaders (Fiorina 1981; Page 1978; Popkin 1991). And an unweighted version of the on-line processing model would suggest that neither competence nor warmth is likely to be more important in candidate evaluations; all traits should impact the running tally in equal measure.

The present study examines how trait information is integrated into global candidate evaluations. More specifically, I examine the impact of candidate competence and warmth in overall judgments of candidates using an experimental design. Evaluations formed on the basis of competence and warmth hold important implications for our understanding of candidate evaluations and for the practical advantages of different trait images. I also pose the question of whether all individuals use trait information in the same way and hypothesize that political experts use traits differently than the less expert.


Given the general importance of trait judgments as predictors of candidate evaluations, we need to consider in greater detail which traits matter and the factors which might alter their influence on candidate evaluations. …

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