Public perceptions regarding the authenticity of the 2012 presidential candidates.

Author:Brewer, Paul R.
Position:Polls and Elections - Report
 
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Today, it seems, politics is all about seeming authentic.

--Paul Krugman (2007)

Public perceptions regarding presidential candidates' personality traits play important roles in shaping vote choice (Markus 1982; Popkin 1991; Rahn et ah, 1990). Though a range of traits can matter, some popular accounts (e.g., Daum 2011; Goldberg 2008) and scholarly works (Edwards 2009; Jamieson and Waldman 2003; Liebes 2001; Louden and McCauliff 2004; Parry-Giles 2001) point to authenticity--or the lack thereof--as a key trait by which citizens judge political candidates. For example, commentators have speculated that President Ronald Reagan's perceived authenticity helped him gain votes from citizens who disagreed with him ideologically (Rosenbloom 2011). On the opposite side of the coin, observers have suggested that an "authenticity gap" damaged 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign (e.g., Balz 2012; Cillizza and Blake 2011; Fields 2012; Gerson 2012). Conventional wisdom also holds that candidates should strive to present authentic messages that resonate with their own political image (e.g., Beinart 2012; Kaplan 2012; Louden and McCauliff 2004).

Thus, understanding when and why citizens perceive presidential candidates and their messages as (in)authentic may help explain voter decisions. Yet little research has systematically investigated such perceptions (Louden and McCauliff 2004). This article draws on several new data sources specifically designed to do so. First, it uses data from a pilot Internet survey to develop the first direct survey measures for perceptions of candidate authenticity. Second, it uses data from a telephone survey conducted in May-June 2012 to analyze the role of political predispositions (political trust, external political efficacy, political interest, partisanship, and ideology) and media use (particularly television news use) in predicting respondents' perceptions of authenticity regarding three targets: political candidates in general, Barack Obama (who was running for reelection as president at the time of the survey), and Romney (who had effectively secured the Republican nomination at that point). Finally, it uses data from a question-wording experiment embedded in the same telephone survey to test how perceptions regarding the authenticity of a presidential candidate's message varied across its source (Obama or Romney) and substance (working for "the middle class" or "job creators"). Taken collectively, the findings shed new light on the nature and origins of perceptions regarding authenticity in the 2012 presidential campaign. Furthermore, they provide an empirical foundation for future research on the ways in which information about candidates may influence such perceptions as well as the potential role of authenticity perceptions in shaping how voters respond to campaign communication and, ultimately, make vote choices.

Authenticity and Political Campaigns

Many journalists, pundits, and even politicians argue that authenticity plays an important role in presidential campaigns, but they do not always agree among themselves on what the concept means. Some suggest that it has become "a code word for chimerical perceptions of simple American values and a simple, even rural middle-class American life," conveyed through signifiers such as casual attire, plain language, and even bowling prowess (Daum 2011). Others argue that it is "really just a label put on self-validation," under which "[p]rinciples and policy details take a back seat to the need to say 'there, there--I understand' to the voters" (Goldberg 2008). Still others suggest that the term has gradually lost any meaning through its frequent and varied use (Rosenbloom 2011).

Scholarly efforts to develop a clearer theoretical definition of authenticity in the context of political campaigns have focused on how candidates present themselves to the public as well as the processes by which they work to construct perceptions of authenticity. Louden and McCauliff (2004, 93) define authenticity as "a correspondence between what is shared and one's actual positions, actual responsibilities, and, most importantly, actual self ... In other words, the authentic candidates are those who know who they are and behave consistently with themselves." In regard to the construction of authenticity, Parry-Giles (2001, 212) writes that it "represents a symbolic, mediated, interactional, and highly contested process by which political candidates attempt to 'make real' a vision of their selves and political characters within the public sphere." Liebes (2001, 499) emphasizes how candidates convey authenticity by playing "the role of someone who really cares--genuine, sincere, spontaneous." Likewise, Jamieson and Waldman (2003) draw on Gofifman's (1967) framework of the "front stage" and "back stage" to conceptualize authenticity as a quality that candidates perform through their campaigns. Louden and McCauliff (2004) furthermore argue that authenticity is conceptually distinct from, if related to, other candidate traits--such as honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity--that political scientists have studied in greater depth. "Honesty and related terms are part of what we mean by authentic," they write, "but only part" (Louden and McCauliff 2004, 90; emphasis in original).

A key theme in all of these accounts is that citizens' perceptions regarding candidate authenticity, rather than candidates' inherent qualities of authenticity, are ultimately what may matter in political campaigns. Such a perspective dovetails with research indicating that voters use an array of information shortcuts, including impressions of character, to draw inferences about how candidates will perform if elected (e.g., Popkin 1991). If perceptions of authenticity provide voters with potential shortcuts for evaluating candidates, then it is important to consider what factors shape these perceptions, both in general terms and for specific candidates. Thus far, however, no research has explicitly assessed authenticity perceptions or examined their antecedents, let alone tested their effects. To provide critical first steps in this endeavor, the present study follows Louden and McCauliff's (2004, 98) call to conduct "a direct solicitation of voters' assessments of candidate authenticity" and then explores the foundations of these assessments.

Explaining Perceptions Regarding Candidate Authenticity

In part, voters' broader beliefs about politicians and the political system may shape their perceptions of candidate authenticity. Previous accounts link public concerns with authenticity to a historical rise in political cynicism; for example, Parry-Giles (2001, 214) suggests that the "anxiety produced by the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-contra, and the Clinton impeachment helped create a political quest for the authentic candidate." Along the same lines, Louden and McCauliff (2004, 92) trace voters' concern about authenticity to their perceptions that "politicians as a class are ... self-serving." Thus, citizens with relatively high levels of political trust (i.e., generalized faith in government; Miller 1974; Hetherington 1998) and external political efficacy (i.e., belief that government authorities are responsive to citizens' demands; Niemi, Craig, and Mattei 1991) may be more likely than other citizens to perceive both candidates in general and specific politicians as authentic.

Similarly, one might expect two hallmarks of political engagement--political interest and partisanship (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995)--to be associated with perceptions of candidate authenticity. When citizens invest themselves in the political process by paying attention to it and by identifying with a major party, they may tend to perceive candidates in ways that justify this investment: if all politicians are fakes, then there should be little material or psychological reward for following them. In light of the role that partisanship plays in shaping perceptions of candidate images (e.g., Bartels 2002) one would also expect Democratic partisans to be more likely than Republican partisans to perceive Democratic candidates as authentic, just as one would expect Republican partisans to be more likely to perceive Republican candidates as authentic. By a parallel logic, one would expect political ideology to predict perceptions of specific politicians as authentic, with liberals viewing Democratic candidates as more authentic and conservatives viewing Republican candidates as more authentic.

Along with citizens' political predispositions, their media use may play a role in shaping their perceptions of authenticity. As Jamieson and Waldman (2003, 29; see also Edwards, 2009; Louden and McCauliff 2004) observe,

The idea of a performance assumes an audience. In politics there are two relevant audiences. One audience is, of course, the voting public. The other--the press--is both an audience and a participant in the performance. They simultaneously enact their own role, edit the politicians' roles, and instruct the public on how the performance should be interpreted and judged. In this context, authenticity ... becomes one of the primary measures of value journalists assign to candidates. Parry-Giles (2001, 214) identifies the news media as "authenticating agents," arguing that the visual techniques of television news give it an especially important role in the contest to construct (and deconstruct) authentic candidate images (see also Liebes 2001). Thus, the following account tests how broadcast television news use, cable television news use, newspaper use, and Internet news use are related to perceptions of candidate authenticity. In doing so, it builds on previous research finding that...

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