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Platform or personality? : understanding the role of leaders in election outcomes Bittner, Amanda


Campaign organizers and the media appear to agree that voters’ perceptions of party leaders have an important impact on the vote: substantial effort is made to ensure that leaders look good, that they speak well, and that they are up in the polls. Media reports during election campaigns focus on the horserace and how leaders are perceived in the public eye. In contrast, the academic literature is much more divided. Some suggest that leaders play an important role in the vote calculus, while others argue that in comparison to other factors (such as partisanship and the economy) perceptions of leaders have only a minimal impact. Problematically, the literature on party leaders is diverse and non-cumulative. Existing studies have been based primarily upon the analysis of only a single election and scholars have relied upon different survey questions in varying formats to inform their conclusions. These differences have resulted in the inconclusiveness of the literature. An effective evaluation of the role of party leaders requires a larger study, comparative across both time and space. This study incorporates data from 35 separate election studies across a number of countries with varying institutional environments. It takes both a broad and in-depth look at evaluations of party leaders. I make five main conclusions. First, voters evaluate leaders’ traits in relation to two dimensions: character and competence. Second, partisanship and ideology have a substantial influence on voters’ perceptions of party leaders, whereas issue attitudes and socio-demographics play a more minimal role. Third, voters perceive leaders through the lens of a partisan stereotype, in which Conservative leaders are seen to be more competent,and leaders of Left parties are perceived to have more character. Fourth, political sophistication has a substantial effect on the way that voters perceive party leaders, as well as affecting the impact of those perceptions on vote choice. Fifth and finally, leaders matter— they have an influential effect on the individual vote calculus, as well as having a discernible impact on electoral outcomes.

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