From presidential races to local elections, decisions about where politicians send their children to school can attract public attention. But do these choices really have an impact on how voters vote? In new research, Leslie K. Finger, Thomas gift, and Andrew Minor use original survey experience to examine how voters perceive politicians who send their children to public versus private school. They find that voters are more likely to support candidates whose children attend public school – a finding they attribute to voters who perceive these candidates as warmer and more committed to public services.
The school choices that politicians make for their children are often in the public eye. For example, the New York Times, while reporting on the Trump family’s decision to send Barron to a private school, Noted that previous educational choices by politicians about where to send their children to school have “sparked a media circus” and “aroused” intense national interest “. Across the partisan aisle, the fact that Elizabeth Warren sent her son to private school, despite his strong support for public education, sparked increased surveillance and accusations of hypocrisy.
This is not just a problem in large national campaigns. In Wisconsin, a candidate for the leadership of a public school was also accused in March of this year, of “mountain-sized hypocrisy” for sending her children to a religious school, even as she protested against the choice of school. In Michigan, a local school board administrator assimilated a member of the school board who did not choose the public school option “to the CEO of General Motors behind the wheel of a Toyota”.
Do politicians’ educational decisions affect how voters assess them? To examine this question, we conducted an original survey experiment with a diverse national sample in the United States. We asked investigators to assess two hypothetical candidates for a position in the state, varying at random whether the candidates had children and, if so, whether they had sent them to a public school (run by state) or private. As shown below, we found that respondents were much more likely to vote for candidates whose children attended public school.
Figure 1 – Predicted Values of Ballot Box Attractiveness, Perceived Warmth, and Perceived Support for Public Spending
Predicted values range from 1 to 5. For the call to the ballot box, 5 = “Extremely unlikely” to vote for the candidate; for warmth (composite index), 5 = the words “sympathetic”, “conscientious”, “friendly” and “considerate” describe the candidate “very well” (see Pedersen et al. (2019)); for expenditure support (composite index), 5 = the candidate would be “very likely” to “advocate for more funding for [schools / anti-poverty programs / transportation / health initiatives]. “The dots represent the predicted median value. The displayed results are calculated by simulating the predicted values using models that regress each dependent variable on public school and non-parental conditions, without any controls.
Why do voters prefer public school politicians?
First, we hypothesized that voters prefer politicians who send their children to public school because they see them as “warmer”. In the United States, private schools are often seen as serving the elite, while public schools are associated with serving ordinary Americans. This could lead voters to believe that politicians in public schools are easier to understand.
Our data confirmed that respondents viewed politicians who sent their children to public school to be more sympathetic, friendly, caring, and conscientious overall – traits we used as an indicator of warmth. In addition, respondents whose own children attended public schools found applicants from public schools to be particularly warm.
Figure 2 – Predicted values of perceived heat, depending on whether the respondent is a parent in a public or private school
Predicted values range from 1 to 5 (composite index). 5 = The words “sympathetic”, “conscientious”, “friendly” and “considerate” describe the candidate “very well”. The points represent the predicted median value. The displayed results are calculated by simulating the predicted values using a model that regresses the heat index on nonparental and public school conditions and by interacting the public school condition with the fact that the respondent sends her children to public school, unchecked.
Second, we hypothesized that voters prefer public school politicians because they see them as more committed to public services. Given polls showing that a large majority of Americans are in favor of increasing or maintaining levels of government spending, candidates who can credibly commit to generously funding public policies could enjoy electoral advantages. .
“Around the old town“(CC BY-NC 2.0) through dr. zaro
Our data confirmed that respondents believed politicians in public schools would be more supportive of state spending on education, health care, transportation, and social assistance programs. Additionally, respondents believed that public school politicians would be particularly committed to spending on public education compared to other policy areas.
Figure 3 – Predicted values of perceived support for public spending, by policy area
Predicted values range from 1 to 5. 5 = the candidate would be “very likely” to “advocate for more funding for the public [schools / anti-poverty programs / transportation / health initiatives]. The points represent the predicted median value. The displayed results are calculated by simulating the predicted values using models that regress each dependent variable on public school and non-parental conditions, without any control.
Links between partisanship and school choice
One potential problem with our analysis is that voters may view school choices as predictive of a candidate’s partisanship. For example, Democrats are often seen as more supportive of public education, especially given their opposition to school choice and their advocacy for increased spending in public schools.
As such, voters could assume that the politicians who send their children to public school are Democrats and vote for them (or not) accordingly. Our results, however, show that even after controlling for respondents’ political leanings and their perception of candidate partisanship, voters were more likely to support candidates who send their children to public school.
In addition to adding to a vast literature on how candidate backgrounds affect voter ratings, our study offers insight into how important family choice by politicians can shape their public image.
When politicians emphasize that their children attend public school in campaign messages, they can expect voters to perceive them as warmer and more committed to public services, resulting in greater support at the polls. . This can, in turn, influence campaign strategy, with candidates drawing attention to that decision (or downplaying the decision to send their children to private school).
Schooling choices are just one of the many family decisions applicants make. Others include choices about where to live, religious participation, lifestyle, marriage, and whether to have children. It is important to explore how these and other decisions affect voter perceptions in order to develop a more complete picture of the factors that underlie the attractiveness of candidates.
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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.
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About the authors
Leslie K. Finger – University of North Texas
Leslie K. Finger is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas.
Thomas gift – UCL
Thomas Gift is associate professor of political science at UCL, where he directs the Center on American Policy (CUSP).
Andrew Minor – Yale Law School
Andrew Miner is a student at Yale Law School.