Like Voters, Like Politicians? Descriptive Representation and the Rise of Populist Parties in Europe (w/ Maria Carreri)

The recent rise of populist parties has shaken all European democracies. Data on politicians shows that populist candidates have an advantage in descriptive representation: populist politicians are more similar to their voters in terms of educational attainment, occupational profile and government experience. Could this explain their increasing popularity? If so, do voters prefer politicians who look like them for instrumental reasons or for psychological (makes you feel good about yourself) reasons? We implement a voting experiment in the Italian context to test i) if voters prefer candidates who “look like them”, and ii) if there are psychological reasons for this preference. Data from a representative sample of voters show results from a series of experiments. The first establishes that in fact voters prefer candidates who share a host of demographic characteristics with them. The second shows that an absence of such descriptively representative candidates on a ballot induces a psychological threat. The third shows that a psychological affirmation (which compensates for threats to self integrity) reduces baseline affinity for descriptively representative candidates that was established in the first experiment. Together these results provide strong evidence for a psychological payoff to descriptive representation, and provide an intuitive explanation for the rise of populist candidates.