Running for office? What voters think of your income

Welcome to the latest in our occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – how voters prefer people who earn less rather than more.

The findings come from research presenting the details of two fictional candidates to voters and asking them what they thought of each. Details of one of the fictional candidates were then altered to see how that changed the reaction of voters.

Here is what voters were initially told about that person:

John Burns is 48 years old, and was born and brought up in your area, before going to University to study for a degree in mathematics. After university John set up his own computer software business, from which he takes a salary of around £28,000 per year. John has interests in the health service, the environment, and pensions, and is married with three children.

Voters were also given another fictional person and asked how they compared:

Without knowing which party they stand for, which of them do you think would be:

More approachable as an MP
More experienced as an MP
More effective as an MP
Which would you prefer as your MP

Other voters were then given the same comparison, but this time told that John Burns earned £100,000 per year from his business rather than £28,000. Do you think his ratings rose (shows he is more successful at running a business than if he is on £28,000 perhaps) or fell (rich and out of touch perhaps)?

The answer… they plummeted. And then they dropped even further when his income was put up to £1 million a year. On “which would you prefer as your MP”, John won the initial comparison with 52%. That fell to 29% when his income was raised to £100,000 and fell once more to 24% when it was £1 million.

As Phil Cowley and Rosie Campbell (who conducted the research) say:

So money hurts – and a lot of money hurts a lot.  It would be perfectly plausible for voters to have rewarded candidates for being financially successful – on the basis that someone who had succeeded for themselves might be exactly the sort of person you would want advocating for you. But there is no evidence of that at all.  In each of the six pairs of candidates presented in this experiment, the public went for the candidate with the lower salary.  As levels of income rise, the damage seems to be particularly severe when it comes to the candidate’s perceived approachability (which may not be that much of a surprise), but the problem for the financially successful is there is no counter-balancing benefit in terms of perceived experience or effectiveness.

Further details, including of the other fictional candidate, are here.

In reality, the downside of successfully setting up a business that earns you a significant amount of money is probably less than the research shows, as a successful person will most likely have accumulated various pieces of evidence other than their salary that can be successfully used in their own campaign: industry awards won, local jobs created and so on. Even so, it’s a stark decline in ratings that such a candidate has to overcome – if, of course, the public know their income.

You can read the other posts in our What do the academics say? series here.

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire. He is a candidate for Party President.

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5 Comments

  • Hmm…this is really interesting (and such a simple experiment!). I think most people would have expected an effect but not as huge as this. Of course, in the real world, things are not going to be as simple as this because people will look at the whole package and wealthy candidates have huge advantages in terms of resources. (It should be noted in the full research, if John was employed by a large company rather than setting up his own business, he did even worse!).

    Full disclosure – several years ago, I was taught at Birkbeck by Rosie Campbell so am always interested to see her research being published in the public sphere.

  • Interesting but do we really think that John Burns on £28,000 or John Burns on £1 million is more likely to win a seat. You can pay for a lot more leaflets and direct mail on the higher income.

  • Geoffrey Payne 24th Apr '12 - 12:44pm

    I think it reflects a mood amongst voters that politicians do not understand what it is like to live on a low income. They make life easier for the rich and harder for the poor.
    When the Lib Dem leadership persuaded the party in 2007 to drop it previous policy of 50p taxation on those earning over £100,000 the official reason given was that it didn’t generate any revenue for the treasury. But the real reason the leadership wanted to change was that they wanted the party to appeal to “aspiration”. However judging from this research, that is a political dead end.

  • Richard Allanach 24th Apr '12 - 5:21pm

    By itself I don’t believe the research tells us much about candidate electability.

    When people decide to vote the first thing they appear to look at is the candidate’s party. You would need to run the experiment again with party labels attached to each of the candidates to find out if, for example, knowing that their candidate earned a million pounds a year put Labour leaning voters off voting for a Labour candidate or that if the conservative candidate was a lone parent struggling to bring up three children on state benefits softened the electors view of the candidate and persuaded more people to vote for them.

    Wealth does not seem to have damaged David Cameron’s electoral appeal in his own constitutency.

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