It is a widely held belief that in an ideal scenario, voters should only consider the platforms of candidates vying for a position of power. However, in reality why is personality such an important factor for deciding whom to vote? Various studies in the fields of political science and sociology have been contributed as to why personality remains as an important factor in the decision-making process of the voters. It is then necessary to ask whether or not the discipline of economics can give explanations to this kind of phenomenon.
Here, it must be noted that platforms refer to the stances of candidates on issues and their respective promises or end-goals in mind. Personality, on the other hand, refers to the track record, character, and other traits of the person running for office. What is important is not the absolute truth regarding the platform and personality, but rather how voters perceive these things. This is because perfect information (an important concept in information economics) is certainly impossible.
A model extensively used in the field of industrial organization called the Hotelling location model (named after Harold Hotelling) can be applied in explaining the prevalence of “personality politics”. The Hotelling location model is concerned with the optimal strategy for a business in order to capture a greater market share and hence, greater profits. It argues that the best strategy (Nash equilibrium condition) for businesses is to locate somewhere in the middle in order to get an equal share of the market. This assumes that the choice that determines which business offering the same service consumers will go to is its distance from them. Let’s take an example of ice cream vendors. If two ice cream vendors positioned their carts on both ends of the street, each of the vendors gets fifty percent of the customers. However, it is in the best interest of the vendor to push his cart towards the middle in order to get more than fifty percent. As a response, the other vendor pushes his cart so as to equalize the distribution of customers. This process will continue until they both reach the middle, which then becomes the optimal location for both of them. This model is a game-theoretic model, which means that it analyzes the strategies of players relative to the possible responses and counterstrategies of other players in the game. Here, we consider the elections as the game where voters and candidates are the players.
If we consider candidates as the producer of a commodity, in this case projects if elected (which can only be assessed through their platforms during the campaign period) and voters as the consumers of the commodity, and the cost associated in consuming that commodity is their vote, then we can model the scenario using the Hotelling location game. The first question that needs to be settled is: how will voters choose whom to vote? Of course, it is reasonable to assume that they will vote the candidates who are closer to them in terms of promises. For a poor individual, he/she will most likely look at promises of poverty alleviation. Similarly, for a migrant worker, he/she will most likely vote for candidates who promise more employment opportunities or better wage and compensation if elected. This is also the reason why we see campaigns of religious organizations for and against certain candidates. Having this in mind, how then will candidates choose their platforms? Since elections is about winning a large number of votes and assuming that they are rational, candidates would most likely promise things that appeal to a greater number of people. Just like the two vendors in the simple example above, they will attempt to outsmart each other by trying to promise things that would capture a wider number of voters. Therefore, the outcome of their actions is that all of them will locate in the middle of the spectrum of voters. This is the concept introduced by Hotelling called “minimum differentiation” in his article entitled Stability in Competition published in the Economic Journal in 1929. In fact, this principle can be seen in the promises of senatoriables vying for public office where almost all promises of candidates revolve around issues of employment, economic development, price stability, food security and poverty alleviation. While it may be true that these candidates have different ways of operationalizing their end-goals, voters are not well-informed on their specific plans of action. This is probably because of constraints such as costs associated with airtime in order to discuss their platforms more concretely that would definitely minimize the homogeneity of their promises.
As we’ve seen, if voters are primarily concerned with the promises of these candidates, but promises are more likely to be very similar, and given that there is very limited and imperfect information on its nuances, how then would a voter decide whom to support? This is where personality comes in. Since personality is something that is unique for every kind politician running, it becomes an important clincher in the decision-making process of voters. Their education, upbringing, and even achievements are unique such that every voter can use this to differentiate and discriminate on the merits of their promises.
Beyond the intuition provided by economic analysis, personality becomes an important consideration in the success of a democratic society. We have to remember that democracy doesn’t end with elections (electoral democracy), but rather is an ongoing process of participation in discourses for the benefit of policy-making (substantive democracy). Personality, in this case, becomes an important determinant of the success of participatory mechanisms. To illustrate, an open-minded and personable leader would most likely allow feedbacks, and even encourage participation in the democratic processes. Conversely, an antagonistic politician would most likely attempt to silence and shun ideas offered by certain sectors of society. This only shows that even if platforms are important, personality should not always take the back seat.
*For a more detailed exposition of the Hotelling Location Model, see Games and Information (2007) by Eric Rasmusen.
About the author
JC de Leon is an inaugural contributor to The Daily Opium.