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We also reran our main vote choice models with three additional modifications. First, we recoded our dependent variable so that respondents who said they were “not sure” which candidate they preferred took an intermediary value (0) between supporting a candidate (1) and opposing her (-1). 19 In a second analysis, we focused only on respondents who were presented with working-class candidates who were also less educated men (a common way that workers are depicted in the media; in the US, we focused in particular on white men) and white-collar candidates who had more formal education (but who could be either male or female and, in the US, either white or black). That is, we excluded atypical candidate profiles that might not conform to social class stereotypes—e.g., college-educated female factory workers—which might make the experiment seem artificial to some survey respondents. In a final robustness check, we limited our analysis to respondents who were given a choice between two candidates with different class backgrounds (that is, excluding cases in which both candidates were either business owners or factory workers). None of these changes altered our basic findings (see Table A8 in the online appendix). Even when we modified our analysis, voters seemed perfectly willing to support working-class political candidates.
Together, these findings also helped assure us that our main result—that voters are just as likely to cast their ballots for hypothetical working-class candidates—was not simply an artifact of respondents overlooking the information we provided about each candidate’s social class or not paying attention to our vignettes more generally (e.g., Berinsky, Margolis, and Sances 2015).
Respondents seemed to notice a candidate’s class in many of our analyses: voters in the US and Britain saw workers as more likely to understand their problems (Figure 2, center panel), voters in Britain saw working-class candidates as more leftist (Figure 2, right panel), Labour and In our main analysis, we used a simple vote choice indicator and treated respondents who said “not sure” as missing data.
Democratic voters in Britain and the US were significantly more likely to vote for a workingclass candidate (Figure 3, top panel), and working-class respondents in Britain were significantly more likely to say they would vote for working-class candidates (Table A5 in the online appendix). We did not have access to “screener” questions or other attention checks in our online surveys in Britain and the US, but our experiments in those countries yielded the same general findings as our experiment in Argentina, which was conducted in a face-to-face survey (where attention is less of a problem). Voters seemed to be paying attention to our vignettes and seemed to notice candidates’ social classes. They simply did not seem to weigh class all that heavily when deciding how to vote.
Across all of the outcomes and subgroups we considered, working-class candidates simply seemed unremarkable—and sometimes seemed to do slightly better than white-collar candidates. In sharp contrast to the idea that voters dislike candidates from the working class, voters in Britain, the US, and Argentina seemed perfectly willing to cast their ballots for them.
Voters and the Descriptive Underrepresentation of the Working Class Political observers often argue that the shortage of working-class people in political institutions reflects the will of the voters. As one comment in response to an online article documenting class-based inequalities in office-holding in the United States scolded, “we have this little problem called free elections.... I just don’t see any way you can do any ‘bias correction’ that doesn’t violate the constitution [sic].” 20 Available online from http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/12/social-status-ofmembers-ofcongress-shifts-policy-toward-rich/ (December 21, 2011).
That idea has wide reach and an understandable intuitive appeal. In political systems where voters are free to choose just about anyone to hold office, if the working class is numerically underrepresented in public office, is that not just an expression of what voters want?
Although the argument seems sensible on its face, a closer look at the evidence suggests that voters themselves may not be responsible for the shortage of workers. In the first-ever experimental study of whether voters choose candidates from the working class in competitive races—and the first study on this topic conducted outside of the US—we find that voters in Britain, the US, and Argentina viewed working-class candidates as equally qualified, more relatable, and just as likely to get their votes. Contrary to the idea that voters prefer affluent politicians, these findings suggest that the shortage of working-class people in political offices in these countries—and probably elsewhere—may not be an expression of the popular will after all.
Across very different contexts—majoritarian and proportional electoral systems, places where unions are more or less widespread—our results are remarkably consistent. Something important is keeping workers out of office in these countries—they are numerically underrepresented by 45 to 65 percentage points in each country—but it does not appear to be voters.
Of course, our study used data from surveys in just three countries. And our experiments also compared just two occupations. We need more research to ensure that the patterns documented in this paper are not limited to the specific countries and occupations we chose. And although asking voters about hypothetical candidates allowed us to control confounding factors, our results were still based on simulated choices, not real ones, and on reading vignettes, not exposure to the many messages, cues, and signals voters receive in actual campaigns. The case is far from closed on this question, and in future work we intend to study more countries—less industrialized contexts, less polarized party systems, and newer democracies—as well as wider ranges of occupations (e.g., Campbell and Cowley 2014a; 2014b; Hainmueller et al. 2014). We also intend to use more data, including experiments that more closely mimic real elections and observational data on how actual candidates perform.
Even so, this study has important implications for scholars interested in why there are so few working-class people in political office in democracies around the world. Any given social group will tend to be numerically underrepresented in public office if people from that group are less likely to be qualified, less likely to run, or less likely to win. The findings presented in this paper suggest that winning may not be the determining factor for the working class.
This finding suggests that scholars interested in the shortage of working-class people in public office may benefit from shifting their attention to the earlier stages of the candidate entry process, as scholars of women’s representation began doing over a decade ago (e.g., CrowderMeyer 2010; Lawless and Fox 2005; 2010; Niven 1998; Pimlott 2010; Sanbonomatsu 2002;
2006). Voter biases undoubtedly help to explain the shortage of some social groups in some times and places, but they have seldom been the whole story. Research on the shortage of women and other social groups in public office quickly moved its focus from voters to other potential explanations; research on the working class may do well to follow suit.
For instance, workers may not be less likely to win elections, but they might believe they are less likely to win—and therefore choose not to run. Pundits and reporters often argue that voters prefer affluent candidates. By doing so, they may be giving would-be candidates from the working class the faulty impression that they would not stand a chance, discouraging them from running in races they might actually win. This study’s findings suggest that voters themselves are not keeping working-class citizens out of office, but elite perceptions of voters may be part of the explanation.
A host of other factors may matter, too: resources like time and money, attitudes like cynicism and efficacy, encouragement by political gatekeepers, institutional rules, organized interest groups, political parties, and so on. If we want to know why the world is run by politicians who are much more affluent than the people they represent, there are still many possible explanations we need to consider. But voter biases probably are not chief among them.
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