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Do Voters Dislike Working-Class Candidates?
Voter Biases and the Descriptive Underrepresentation of the Working Class *
Sanford School of Public Policy
Department of Political Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison
We are grateful for advice and support from Geoffrey Evans and the board of the British Election Study; Sunshine
Hillygus, Steven Snell, and the Duke Social Science Research Institute; and Luis Schiumerini, Virginia Oliveros, and the board of the Argentine Panel Election Study. We are also grateful for feedback from Barry Burden, Rafaela Dancygier, William Franko, Scott Gehlbach, Nate Kelly, David Nickerson, Logan Vidal, and seminar participants at CIDE, ETH-Zurich, Oxford, Princeton, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin. We presented previous versions of this paper at the 2015 Annual Meetings of the American Political Science Association and the Midwest Political Science Association and the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Southern Political Science Association. All translations are our own.
Abstract In most democracies, lawmakers tend to be vastly better off than the citizens who elect them. Is that because voters prefer more affluent politicians over leaders from working-class backgrounds? In this paper, we report the results of candidate choice experiments embedded in surveys in Britain, the US, and Argentina. Using conjoint designs, we asked voters in these different contexts to choose between two hypothetical candidates, randomly varying several of the candidates’ personal characteristics, including whether they had worked in blue-collar or white-collar jobs. Contrary to the idea that voters prefer affluent politicians, the voters in our experiments viewed hypothetical candidates from the working class as equally qualified, more relatable, and just as likely to get their votes. Voters do not seem to be behind the shortage of working-class politicians. To the contrary, British, American, and Argentine voters seem perfectly willing to cast their ballots for working-class candidates.
Keywords: class; descriptive representation; vote choice; survey experiment; conjoint design;
British politics; US politics; Argentine politics Pobre não vota em pobre (Poor people don’t vote for poor people) —Brazilian saying Politicians theworld over are vastly better off than the citizens they represent. In both developing and advanced democracies, the available data suggest that elected officials are almost always wealthier, more educated, and more likely to come from white-collar jobs than the citizens who elect them (e.g., Best 2007; Best and Cotta 2000; Matthews 1985). In the United States, working-class citizens 1—people employed in manual labor, service industry, clerical, or informal sector jobs—make up over half of the labor force, but the typical member of Congress spent less than 2 percent of his or her pre-congressional career in working-class jobs. Across Latin American democracies, workers make up between 60 and 90 percent of the general public, but legislators from those occupations make up just 5 to 25 percent of national legislatures (Carnes and Lupu 2015). In Europe, blue-collar workers make up large proportions of the electorate but have rarely made up more than 10 percent of national legislatures (Best and Cotta 2000). 2 In this paper, we refer to a person as belonging to the working class (or as simply a worker) if he or she is employed in manual labor jobs (e.g., factory worker), service industry jobs (e.g., restaurant server), clerical jobs (e.g., receptionist), or union jobs (e.g., field organizer). Likewise, we define a person as having a white-collar job if she is not a part of the working class. Of course, there are other ways to disaggregate occupations (e.g., some people might not classify clerical jobs as working class), and other ways to measure class (e.g., education, income, wealth, family background, subjective perceptions, etc.). Most modern class analysts agree, however, that any measure of class should be rooted in occupational data, that is, information about how a person earns a living (e.g., Hout, Manza, and Brooks 1995; Weeden and Grusky 2005; Wright 1997). And the distinction between working-class jobs and white-collar jobs seems to be the major class-based dividing line in political institutions (Carnes 2012; 2013;
Carnes and Lupu 2015). Lawmakers from working-class occupational backgrounds tend to vote differently than legislators from white-collar backgrounds; however, legislators with higher net worth, more formal education, or well-to-do parents tend not to behave as differently (Carnes 2013; Carnes and Sadin 2015). There are also important differences within the working-class and white-collar categories (e.g., between manual laborers and clerical workers), of course, but the major dividing line seems to be between workers, who tend to support more interventionist economic policies, and professionals, who tend to support a more conservative role for government in economic affairs.
There is less research on the class backgrounds of leaders in African and Asian democracies.
Recently, political scientists have started paying renewed attention to these economic and social class gaps between politicians and citizens (partly in response to growing interest in the larger phenomenon of political inequality; e.g., Bartels 2008; Beramendi and Anderson 2008;
Hacker and Pierson 2011; Gilens 2012; Iversen and Soskice 2015; McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal 2006). One emerging body of research has found that government by the privileged has significant consequences: lawmakers from different classes tend to bring different perspectives to the political process. Just as the shortage of women or racial and ethnic minorities in office seems to affect policy outcomes on issues related to gender and race (e.g., Berkman and O’Connor 1993; Bratton and Ray 2002; Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004; Franck and Rainer 2012; Pande 2003; Swers 2002; Thomas 1991), the shortage of working-class politicians—who tend to be more leftist on economic issues in most countries—appears to bias policy on issues like wage supports, taxation, and social welfare towards the more conservative positions typically favored by affluent citizens. In the United States (Carnes 2012; 2013; Grose 2013;
Griffin and Anewalt-Remsburg 2013) and in other democracies (Carnes and Lupu 2015), the economic gap between politicians and the people they represent appears to significantly tilt policy outcomes on issues of paramount significance.
Building on these findings, related research has begun to investigate the causes of government by the privileged. To date, however, only a handful of studies have explored this important topic, and most have focused on either the hypothesis that workers are less qualified— which has not found much empirical support—or on the idea that unions increase the numerical representation of particular occupational groups (e.g., Carnes 2013; Sojourner 2013).
In this paper, we test another potential explanation for the shortage of working-class people in political office: that voters dislike working-class candidates. This hypothesis squares with psychological research suggesting that middle-class people have subtle pro-rich biases (e.g., Horwitz and Dovidio forthcoming), and it is often invoked in both scholarly and popular discussions about the skewed makeup of democratic institutions. Political observers often argue that “the voters tend to elect wealthy politicos” because “the electorate seems to want a mix of personality and power, but only if they come with a pedigree and bank account to match” (Abdullah 2012, 1), or that “[v]oters repeatedly reject insurrectionist candidates who parallel their own ordinariness, even candidates who vow to further the individual voter’s interests, in favor of [more affluent] candidates” (Henry 1995, 21). Why are politicians so much better off than the people they represent? One common idea is that voters simply dislike candidates from the working class.
To test this hypothesis, we conducted candidate choice experiments embedded in nationally-representative surveys in Britain, the US, and Argentina, three countries where working-class people make up a majority of the labor force but less than 5 percent of the national legislature (Carnes 2013; Carnes and Lupu 2015; Cracknell and McGuinness 2010; Office of National Statistics 2012). Using conjoint designs, we asked voters in these different contexts to choose between two hypothetical candidates, randomly varying several of the candidates’ personal characteristics, including whether they had worked in blue-collar or white-collar jobs. 3 This study represents the largest and most rigorous experimental analysis ever conducted on the role that voters play in the descriptive underrepresentation of the working class in the world’s democracies.
As we explain below, this approach is a substantial improvement over the few prior studies on this topic, which have focused exclusively on the United States and have relied on either observational data or experiments in which voters only evaluate a single hypothetical candidate (Carnes 2013; Carnes and Sadin 2015; Sadin 2012).
Contrary to the idea that voters prefer affluent politicians, our candidate choice experiments found that voters across these three very different countries all viewed workingclass candidates as equally qualified, more relatable, and just as likely to get their votes. Voters may not be to blame for the global phenomenon of government by the privileged. To the contrary, British, American, and Argentine voters seem perfectly willing to cast their ballots for working-class candidates.
When it comes to holding political office, the numerical or descriptive representation (Pitkin 1967) of any social group may be reduced by one of several processes. Some people from the group will not be qualified for office, either because they are not legally eligible or because they do not have the skills necessary for campaigning, governing, and performing the functions of political office. Of those who are qualified, most will choose not to seek public office, either because they lack political ambition, because they are not interested, or for some other reason.
And, of those who seek office, many will lose. If a given social group is disproportionately screened out at any of these stages—if people from that group are less likely than others to be qualified, if those who are qualified are less likely to run, or if those who run are less likely to win—the group will be numerically underrepresented in public office relative to its numbers in the population as a whole.
In places where working-class citizens seldom hold political office, political observers often attribute the shortage of workers to the last stage, that is, to voters and elections. Voters prefer white-collar candidates, the argument goes, and qualified workers therefore either choose not to run for elected office as often as white-collar professionals, or qualified workers run and simply lose more often.
On its face, this line of reasoning has a certain intuitive appeal. For one, elections are sometimes responsible for keeping historically underrepresented groups out of office. Around the world, voters have often exhibited biases against female and racial or ethnic minority candidates that help to explain why so few women and minorities hold office (Aguilar et al. forthcoming;
Citrin, Green, and Sears 1990; Darcy, Welch, and Clark 1994; Dolan 2004; Fisher et al forthcoming; Fulton 2014; Horowitz 1985; Morgan and Buice 2013; Norris and Lovenduski 1995; Paxton and Hughes 2007; Philpot and Walton 2007; Sanbonmatsu 2003; Schwindt-Bayer, Malecki, and Crisp 2010; Seltzer, Newman, and Leighton 1997; Welch and Studlar 1988). 4 These biases appear to be fading in some contexts (Aguilar, Cunow, and Desposato 2015;
Campbell and Cowley 2014b; Inglehart and Norris 2003; Lynch and Dolan 2014; McElroy and Marsh 2010; Norris, Vallance, and Lovenduski 1992; Smith and Fox 2001), but female and minority candidates have often faced discrimination in the past, and in many places they still do.
It is easy to imagine that voters might exhibit similar biases against candidates from the working class. Prejudice against the less fortunate is common (Baron, Abright, and Malloy 1995;
Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, and Tagler 2001; Fiske et al 1999). And even voters who are not prejudiced per se might engage in a sort of “statistical discrimination”—that is, voters who are uncertain about a candidate’s abilities or personal qualities might make guesses based on the candidate’s economic or social class background (e.g., Phelps 1972; Darley and Gross 1983).
Indeed, political philosophers have often assumed that voters prefer to be represented by the well-to-do (see Ferejohn and Rosenbluth 2009; Manin 1997). In Federalist 35, Alexander For useful reviews of these bodies of research, see Dolan and Sanbonmatsu (2011), Lawless (2015), and Wängnerud (2009).
Hamilton wrote that “Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants in preference of persons of their own professions or trades… They know that the merchant is their natural patron and friend; and they are aware that… their interests can be more effectually promoted by the merchants than by themselves” (Hamilton 1982 : 166). If voters are prejudiced against the working class, or if they guess that working-class candidates are less qualified, or if they simply like affluent candidates better, voting and elections might indeed be responsible for the shortage of working-class people in political office.