When deciding whom to support, voters can be influenced by various factors, including personal characteristics of candidates. While political behaviour scholars seem to have reached a consensus on the so-called personalization of politics, with the profiles of leaders and candidates playing an increasingly important role in citizens’ voting behaviour, little is known about which candidate characteristics voters rely on most when choosing which candidate to vote for and how different candidate characteristics compare in the strength of their effect on party choice.
Relying on Finnish election study data from 2015, in our recent article in Politics we compare which emphasis voters place on candidate sociodemographic profile, competence and experience, issue positions, and party affiliation when deciding whom to vote for. In an open-list PR system with mandatory preferential voting such as the Finnish system, voters are faced a challenging task; in order to vote they need to choose a single candidate out of many candidates, and the amount of political information is overwhelming. Under such circumstances, voters are expected to rely on simple voting cues when making their vote choice.
The analyses show that Finnish voters argue to be most influenced by candidate characteristics containing the most direct politically relevant information when deciding which candidate to support. Candidate party affiliation is the most emphasised characteristic, but candidate issue positions also play a major role. By contrast, candidate sociodemographic characteristics have, according to voters themselves, little relevance when they decide whom to support. We also find that the extent to which candidate characteristics matter differs depending on voters’ levels of political sophistication (measured by voters’ political knowledge, political interest and media exposure). Voters who are politically sophisticated are more likely to find both characteristics that are easy to ascertain and more complex candidate characteristics important when deciding whom to support compared with those who are not politically sophisticated. Sophisticated voters thus seem to consider a wider variety of candidate characteristics when deciding whom to support. When investigating the relative impact of each candidate characteristic (that is, their impact relative to the other candidate characteristics) on voting behaviour, a different pattern occurs. Political sophistication decreases the likelihood of finding sociodemographic characteristics important but increases the likelihood of saying that political competence and experience as well as policy issues matter.
In sum then, we can conclude that in a highly candidate-centred and complex political context such as Finland, it is (still) – according to the voters themselves – candidate party affiliation that matters most when they decide whom to support. As such, the current research adds to the empirical study on the personalization of politics and somewhat challenges the claim of the (growing) importance of personal qualities and characteristics, as it suggests that it is (still) parties and candidate party affiliation that play the most important role for voters – at least when they explain their own voting behaviour.