Who Else Is Running? Reference Dependence in Candidate Evaluations

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(2) 238 –251
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X18803881
Models of candidate evaluation reasonably assume individu-
als review a candidate’s political attributes and express pref-
erences based on those characteristics. Scholars have had
success identifying causal effects associated with features
such as race (e.g., Mcdermott, 1998; Sigelman, Sigelman,
Walkosz, & Nitz, 1995; Terkildsen, 1993), gender (e.g.,
Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993a, 1993b; Kahn, 1994; King &
Matland, 2003), and partisanship (e.g., Rahn, 1993;
Schaffner, Streb, & Wright, 2001). Such studies, however,
are limited in that voters rarely, if ever, evaluate a single can-
didate in isolation. Instead, save for contests featuring an
unchallenged candidate, they compare multiple individuals
simultaneously. An individual’s perception of a particular
candidate may be partially a function of the larger candidate
choice set from which individual voters must make electoral
judgments. Drawing on behavioral economics and the con-
cept of reference dependence, I argue that the same candidate
may be perceived in systematically different ways based on
the electoral context in which they are evaluated.
This project contributes to our understanding of how vot-
ers form impressions of singular candidates in a dynamic
political environment. Specifically, I test the claim that the
same political candidate will enjoy higher or lower levels of
support among voters based on (a) their electoral competi-
tion and (b) ideological characteristics of individuals evalu-
ating them. To do this, I first discuss the concept of reference
dependence and apply its logic to American elections. I then
present the design of an experiment in which voters are asked
to evaluate candidates either (a) in isolation or (b) contrasted
with a challenger, thereby facilitating analysis of whether or
not the presence of political competition informs evaluations
of individual candidates running for office. Results demon-
strate that voters in both political parties are susceptible to
challenger effects, although not in the same way. I close with
a discussion of the work’s implications both for scholars ana-
lyzing elections as well as elites deciding whether or not to
participate in them.
Reference Dependence in an Electoral
Behavioral economists and psychologists have long noted
that individuals have a tendency to perceive particular phe-
nomena based on reference points (Emery, 1970; Monroe,
1973; Tversky & Kahneman, 1991). Tversky and Kahneman
(1974), for instance, find in a simple experiment that student
estimates of the quantity 8 × 7 × 6 × 5 × 4 × 3 × 2 × 1 are
roughly 4 times as large as estimates of the equivalent 1 × 2
× 3 × 4 × 5 × 6 × 7 × 8. Consumer research uncovers a
similar pattern: some reference point (or “anchor”) affects
individuals’ perceptions of concepts such as value and attrac-
tiveness of goods (e.g., Bagwell & Riordan, 1991; Biswas &
Blair, 1991; Briesch, Krishnamurthi, Mazumdar, & Raj,
1997; Hardie, Johnson, & Fader, 1993). The best example of
803881APRXXX10.1177/1532673X18803881American Politics ResearchLoepp
1University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, WI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Eric Loepp, University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, 5100 Laurentide Hall,
800 Main Street, Whitewater, WI 53190, USA.
Email: eric.loepp@gmail.com
Who Else Is Running? Reference
Dependence in Candidate Evaluations
Eric Loepp1
Research assessing how voters evaluate political candidates often focuses on the effects of particular attributes (e.g., race,
gender, partisanship). I submit that voters’ perceptions of candidates may depend not only on candidates’ own traits and
features, but those of other candidates running against them. Drawing on literature on reference dependence, I argue
that the same candidate may be perceived in significantly different ways depending on whether or not voters evaluate the
candidate as a single entity or as one option in a multicandidate field. An original survey experiment reveals that under certain
circumstances, Republicans and Democrats both adjust their evaluations of party candidates as a function of the presence
of other candidates. I conclude with a discussion of this project’s implications for a larger body of work looking at reference
dependence in American elections.
reference dependence, elections, candidates, ideology, primary elections

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