DCPS or Sidwell Friends? How Politician Schooling Choices Affect Voter Evaluations

Date01 May 2022
Published date01 May 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 50(3) 326 –335
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211042002
Voters often turn to background traits of politicians—such as
a candidate’s race, sex, education, or social status—as a heu-
ristic to inform ballot box decisions.1 Research examines
whether family composition, and especially parental status,
matters to voters (Bell & Kaufmann, 2015; Campbell &
Cowley, 2018; Deason et al., 2015; Elder & Greene, 2012;
Stalsburg, 2010; Teele et al., 2018; Thomas & Bittner, 2017).
Yet despite the visible role that families play in campaigns,
studies largely overlook how the decisions that candidates
make regarding their families affect their electability.
Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that family decisions
can shape voter perception of politicians. In the extreme, for
example, tawdry revelations of a secret side family derailed
once-rising Democratic star John Edwards. Yet even more
mundane choices—such as where politicians live or how
they spend time with their family—may sway voters. The
fact that Joe Biden, for instance, rode the train home to
Delaware nightly to be with his family during his more than
three decades in the Senate rather than live in Washington
was the subject of media interest, earning Biden the nick-
name “Amtrak Joe” (Bosman, 2008).
In this piece, we probe one of the most important family
choices that many politicians make: whether to send their
children to public or private school. The issue can be seen as
tied to broader values.2 As far back as the 1970s, for example,
Jimmy Carter made headlines for sending his daughter to a
D.C. public school, as he railed against “‘exclusive private
schools’ that allow the children of the ‘political and economic
elite’ to avoid public schools that are considered dangerous or
inferior” (NYT, 1976). More recently, however, Barack
Obama made a different choice, enrolling his daughters in
tony Sidwell Friends, despite once insisting that private
schools fuel “an anti-government ideology” (Schwartz,
2015). The choice, however, is not merely symbolic. Many
politicians seem to think that selecting public schools can be
a boon in elections. For example, while running for president,
Bill Clinton reportedly subjected voters to “yards of rhetoric
about Chelsea’s schooling in Little Rock, Ark”—and was
“quick to point out that it was a public school in which white
kids were in the minority” (Daley, 1993). As one Wall Street
Journal article notes, schooling decisions are where “[t]he
personal becomes political” (Kaminski, 2008).
Questions about where politicians send their children to
school are not just confined to presidential races and other
APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211042002American Politics ResearchFinger et al.
1Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
2University College London, UK
3Yale Law School, New Haven, CT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Thomas Creigh Gift, University College London, 31 Tavistock Square,
London WC1H 9QU, UK.
Email: t.gift@ucl.ac.uk
DCPS or Sidwell Friends? How
Politician Schooling Choices Affect
Voter Evaluations
Leslie K. Finger1, Thomas Creigh Gift2,
and Andrew Miner3
Voters often rely on informational shortcuts, such as the background traits of politicians, to decide which candidates to
support at the ballot box. One such background trait is family composition, particularly parental status. Research, however, has
mostly overlooked whether the value-laden choices that politicians make regarding their families—like what neighborhoods
they live in, where they worship, and what schools they send their children to—affect how constituents view them. We
conduct a survey experiment in the U.S. that presents respondents with hypothetical biographies of politicians that randomly
vary one of the most important decisions that politicians make regarding their families: whether to send them to public or
private school. We find that: (1) voters are more inclined to vote for politicians with children in public school; and (2) this
preference may be due to voters perceiving these politicians as both warmer and more committed to public services.
education, voting, candidate evaluation

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