Harald Schoen, Christian Schimpf
On the psychological roots of populist voting: A discussion of Bakker, Rooduijn, and Schumacher (2016)

Working Paper
26 S.

In a recently published article in the European Journal of Political Research, Bakker et al. (2016) argue that agreeableness, one of the five traits in the now popular five-factor model, affects the probability with which voters choose populist over non-populist parties. Specifically, they contend that individuals characterized by low levels of agreeableness are less trustful and thus, match the anti-elite platform that populist parties run on. In this discussion paper, we raise two issues that have important implications for researchers interested in explaining why voters choose populist parties and scholars who study the relationship between personality traits and electoral behavior in general. First, we argue that the theoretical argument by Bakker et al. remains underspecified in that the paper proposes a direct effect of agreeableness on voting for populist parties. Based on a series of studies that focus on personality traits and electoral behavior, however, we discuss the possibility of an indirect, i.e. mediated, effect. Beyond the theoretical argument, this consideration also has implications for the identification strategy used to test the effect of agreeableness on choosing a populist party. Second, we re-examine the results for the cases of the left-wing populist party chosen by Bakker et al., the German party Die Linke in the 2009 German national election. Rather than solely focusing on the vote for the district candidate, we also examine the more important party vote in the German national election. In contrast to the original findings based on the candidate vote, we observe no substantial relationship between agreeableness and voting for Die Linke. An extension to the 2013 German national election and a potential second left-wing populist party in the Netherlands, the Socialist Party, strengthen our findings. We discuss the implications for the relationship between personality traits and a populist vote and highlight areas for future research on this question.