Rich man, poor man, politician man

The question of voters’ reactions to the personal wealth of politicians is increasingly topical. Even in the United States, where money is generally equated with success, Mitt Romney’s vast fortune (and low tax rate) was used against him in the Republican primaries. In Britain there has been a public debate as to whether politicians should have to publish their tax returns – with candidates for the London Mayoralty (mostly) doing so.  The issue is certainly live, but at present academic research can contribute little to the debate.

To investigate the public’s reactions to wealthy (or not so wealthy) candidates we ran an internet survey experiment where respondents were asked to rate and choose between two hypothetical candidates based on short biographies. We applied two experimental manipulations, one to wealth and the other to occupation.  Splitting the samples, we varied occupation between a self-made businessman and employee of an international finance company, and we also varied the amount that they earned.

The effects – with the headlines reported here – were powerful.  We found that voters preferred the self-made businessman to the financier, but that regardless of occupation they reacted negatively to financial success.  As we increased the amount earned by our hypothetical candidate, so their popularity declined.  Voters did not reward candidates for their financial success, rather they turned against them.

Yet what was also revealing was that voters did not respond homogenously to our experiments.  We found notable differences by both social class and party support.

The experiment used a split sample technique, showing almost identical candidate profiles to respondents but making slight alterations in wording.  It compared two hypothetical candidates – John and George – and measured the differences caused by making slight changes in John’s profile.  We measured three perceived candidate characteristics – approachability, experience, and effectiveness – as well as asking which candidate respondents preferred overall, but for reasons of space, we focus here just on the overall preference figures.

The top half of first table (below) shows the difference in the way respondents chose the candidates when we presented them with John as a businessman who earned some £28,000 (the average male salary).  As is clear, John was preferred over George (who was a solicitor earning £45,000 per year) amongst all groups but especially strongly amongst those in the C2 and DE social groups.

The bottom half of the same table shows the results when we increased John’s income to a cool one million (but kept every other aspect of the profiles the same).  Now George was preferred to John amongst every social class.  One way to look at this is to examine the ‘cost’ of the increase in income – by looking at the change in John’s lead from when he earned £28k to when it was a million.  Amongst ABs, for example, the lead goes from +27 to -19, a change of 46 percentage points.  Amongst C1s, the difference is 54 points. But amongst C2s and DEs, it is 65 points. So everyone is put off by wealthy candidates, but the working class are put off more.  We found exactly the same when we repeated the experiment but with John as a financier instead of a businessman: the total cost of the increased income was 49 points amongst ABs, but 67 amongst DEs.

John’s occupation/income

Social class

John

George

Difference

Businessman/28k

AB

51

24

+27

C1

44

22

+22

C2

57

13

+44

DE

58

14

+44

Businessman/1 million

AB

25

44

-19

C1

18

50

-32

C2

28

49

-21

DE

26

47

-21

The differences by party support were even more striking, as shown in the table below.  Again, as levels of income rose, so John became less attractive to supporters of all three main political parties – but at a very different rate.  Labour voters were especially turned off by the rising income: from favouring John by some 41 points when he earned £28k, if John earned a million they favoured George by 52 points – a massive 93 point transformation.  Lib Dem voters had a similar experience, favouring John by 41 points when he earned £28k but with that transforming into a 26 point deficit once his income increased to a million.

John’s occupation/income

Party

John

George

Difference

Businessman/28k

L

59

18

+41

C

43

25

+18

LD

58

14

+44

Businessman/1 million

L

12

64

-52

C

38

36

+2

LD

23

49

-26

Conservative voters, however, reacted differently.  The total cost of John’s extra income amongst Conservative voters was a still significant 16 points, but even after John was earning a million per year they still preferred (albeit just) John to George.  (We also showed some respondents a version in which John earned £100,000 – and Conservative voters also preferred that John to George, this time by three points).  There clearly was, therefore, some Conservative respondents who saw John’s financial success as positive and a reason to want him as their representative.

However, when we changed John’s occupation to that of a financier rather than a businessman, we did not find the same effect.  Conservative respondents were still relatively more positive towards John than George, but the cost of John’s extra income increased to some 37 points even amongst Conservatives, and they no longer preferred John to George.  In other words, Conservative-inclined respondents were less put off by candidates with higher levels of income and they made a sharper distinction between money earned by someone who had set up their own business and that earned from a multi-national company than did other respondents.

So wealth could be a negative factor for all candidates, but it is likely to be an especial negative for Labour and Lib Dem candidates.

Rosie Campbell is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London; Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham.

This post originally appeared on Ballots & Bullets, the blog of School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.

NOTE: Fieldwork using the YouGov Plc UK panel (350,000+ adults who have agreed to take part in such surveys) was undertaken on 10-11 April 2012 (sample of 1,727 people) and 11-12 April 2012 (sample of 1,686 people). Figures have been weighted to be representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). All text is solely the opinion of the authors.

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