Ballot Cues, Business Candidates, and Voter Choices in Local Elections

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(2) 186 –197
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20943559
Consider two claims about American voters. First, they tend
to make heavy use of simple cues and heuristics, including
information that is present on the ballot itself such as party
identification, gender, and ethnicity (Boudreau et al., 2015;
McDermott, 2005). Second, Americans generally express
strong support in the abstract for candidates with a business
background. A 2014 Gallup Poll found that 81% of
Americans thought that the country would be governed bet-
ter if more people with business and management experi-
ence were in political office (McCarthy, 2014). Similarly,
the 1998 Gallup Democratic Processes Survey found that
nearly a third of respondents thought the political system
would be better if decisions were left to successful business
people (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 2002, pp. 137–139). As
one recent study (Coffé & Theiss-Morse, 2016, p. 56) stated,
“Many Americans seem to view successful businesspeople
as capable, competent, and efficient, and unlikely to waste
taxpayers’ money.”
While the first claim about heavy use of cues and heuris-
tics is widely accepted by scholars, it is much less clear that
identification of candidates as businesspeople provides a sig-
nificant behavioral cue—it is one thing for voters to express
support for “running the government like a business” and
quite another to be inclined to support a business candidate
when other choices are available. We know relatively little
about how occupational cues affect voting choices in the
United States or abroad (Coffé & Theiss-Morse, 2016),
though the small body of literature in this area suggests they
may be significant (see especially Crowder-Meyer et al.,
2019; Mechtel, 2014). In the American context observational
research typically is hampered because (outside of California)
occupational background is not listed on the ballot, making it
difficult to determine the impact of simple cues in this area.
The limited available empirical evidence therefore often
comes solely from experimental studies, not combined with
observational data.
To understand the potential impact of occupational cues
generally and the businessperson designation specifically, it
makes sense to focus on voting choices in California. This is
because California allows candidates to list their occupation
on the ballot, something that rarely is permitted in other
states. Candidates generally take advantage of this opportu-
nity, allowing researchers to determine how occupational
designations immediately available to citizens by simply
inspecting their ballots influence voting decisions. In addi-
tion, California law prohibits candidates for local office from
identifying party affiliation on the ballot, thereby removing a
943559APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20943559American Politics ResearchAdams et al.
1San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, USA
2California State University Sacramento, Sacramento, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Brian Adams, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Drive,
San Diego, CA 92182, USA.
Ballot Cues, Business Candidates,
and Voter Choices in Local Elections
Brian E. Adams1, Edward L. Lascher Jr.2,
and Danielle Joesten Martin2
American voters commonly express abstract support for candidates with a business background, yet there is minimal
systematic evidence about whether it advantages candidates in actual electoral contests. We examine this question using
observational data, drawing on a California law allowing candidates to designate their occupational background on the ballot,
and experimental data. Candidates with a business background are prevalent in California. However, neither of our studies
indicate that business candidates enjoy atypical overall electoral success (although Republican leaning constituencies have
a notably more favorable view of such candidates). A political background predicts electoral success far more effectively.
Further, “small business owners” have more success than other business candidates, suggesting that voters consider the
specifics of a candidate’s business experience. These results advance our knowledge of decision making in low-information
elections, how voters weigh private-sector versus political experience, and how they filter occupational information through
a partisan lens.
local elections, voting behavior, voting cues and heuristics

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