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Amateur Appeal

Economic research illuminates why the inexperienced outsider often holds voter appeal

Toronto mayor Rob Ford does not fit comfortably within the conventional criteria for a successful political candidate: he did not complete a college degree, even before he first held office he was beset by allegations of substance abuse, and he recently admitted to having smoked cocaine while in office.

A penchant for arousing controversy is not Ford’s only attribute, however. The mayor of Toronto hands out his personal telephone number to his constituents, refuses a personal driver, and he earned a reputation for his zeal in attending to the problems of his constituents and paying his work expenses out of his own pocket. A suburban conservative, he enjoys a turbulent and confrontational relationship with the Left-dominated Toronto City Council, which recently extended to a physical altercation with one of its members. In spite of his colourful and occasionally illegal behaviour, however, opinion polls show that he is a viable candidate for re-election in 2014, and he remains hugely popular amongst his electoral base.

Rob Ford is a classic example of a successful amateur elected to political office on a campaign that emphasises his role as an outsider. My recent research with Carlo Prato seeks to explain the outsider appeal to voters of amateur politicians, such as Sarah Palin, Scott Brown, and European anti-establishment parties such as Italy’s Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Stars Movement) and Iceland’s Besti flokkurinn (Best Party).

Our research is part of a broad contemporary academic and political debate about the role of human capital in the election process. The term human capital captures expertise and the innate or acquired skills that enhance an individual’s productive capabilities. It is often measured by years of education and previous work experience. In many professions, the value placed by employers on these qualities is reflected in higher wages and job tenure.

Outsider politicians may be perceived as more likely to serve their constituents instead of party goals.

In politics, too, experience and skills are crucial. National politicians frequently begin their careers at the regional or local level, where they acquire expertise about specific policy areas, as well as experience in navigating complex legislative procedures and government processes. While other politicians begin their careers in the private sector, they often develop policy-relevant skills. However, the appeal of outsider candidates – many of them self-declared political amateurs - and the attempts of many political insiders to re-define themselves as outsiders in their campaigns suggest that these skills and experience may be viewed differently in the political theatre. On the election stage, at times, inexperience seems to appeal. Outsider candidates often bring their own distinct set of political skills, such as previous fame and charisma. These skills often make them very strong campaigners due to their high visibility, but do not necessarily qualify them for wrestling with a particular set of policy problems. This gives rise to the question: Just what is the appeal of the amateur?

The importance of human capital in politics is at the centre of recent public policy debates both in the U.K. and elsewhere. These debates are often focused on how to ensure that high-quality individuals run for political office – for example, by increasing politicians’ salaries in order to compete with the private sector. This is especially important in newly established democracies, where the quality of governance is a key determinant of long-term prosperity. However, with public purses everywhere under pressure, and questions arising about the role of special interest money’s ability to sway policy, the issue has proved potent in longstanding democracies as well - as evidenced by the controversy over the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority’s recommendation to increase MP’s salaries.

Virtually all sides involved in these discussions – including the academic ones - are based on the presumption that when the human capital of politicians rises, voters will necessarily benefit from these improved skills and experience.

Our research examines this presumption through the lens of game theory, and shows that such an assumption is not always reasonable. Our starting point is that politicians face multiple and competing demands on their attention. On the one hand, their constituents expect them to act as tireless advocates, for example by influencing national programs to serve their local interest. On the other hand, politicians are invariably organised into factions and parties – teams of politicians with their own missions and demands. Sometimes, the goals of the party - be they ideological or material- run into conflict with those of constituency voters. For example, the Republican Party leadership at the end of 2012 removed four of its House members from prominent committee assignments for their refusal to support the party line on tax and spending policy, despite the popularity of these members’ stands amongst their constituency voters.

“ Fully rational anti-establishment sentiments are readily observed in politics across the globe. ”

In our theory, each politician allocates her time between two forms of activity: those that benefit her constituency voters, and those directly advancing her party/factional cause. Our results are based on two presumptions. First, the value to a politician from pursuing her faction’s goals is higher when other politicians in her team also work with her. For example, forcing an amendment onto a bill or toppling a party leadership requires a degree of coordination and teamwork amongst like-minded politicians – it cannot simply be done solo. Second, we focus on that component of a politician’s human capital which increases her productive capacity in both forms of activities. That is, we focus on human capital which constitutes a broad set of skills and experience and which is valuable across a range of tasks – including generating benefits to voters and advancing the goals of a legislative group.

Voters, then, face a dilemma: how can they force politicians to focus on the activities that benefit them, rather than the party? The answer is by providing electoral incentives: performance-oriented voters can reflect on what was delivered over the politician’s term and either re-elect her or give her job to someone else. In turn, this threat of removal should force politicians to be attentive to the needs of their voters. How effective are these incentives in the presence of a competing source of loyalty for politicians?

To illustrate our reasoning, suppose that one district ends up with a better-quality politician, while all other politicians remain the same. On the one hand, this higher-quality politician is potentially more productive in serving her constituency voters; but, she is also a more valuable teammate to her fellow politicians. This increases the temptation of all politicians within the faction to devote their effort to advancing their factional cause, rather than working for their constituents. Voters are then forced to content themselves with a politician who is less visible in their constituency and less prepared to devote time to fighting for their interests. Moreover, when the party leadership is strong enough, this effect is so powerful that, as a result, every voter is worse off than before. This includes even the voters served by the politician whose quality improved: their benefit from her increased quality is more than offset by her incentive to prioritise her work for the party. Such a fear was clearly expressed by Massachusetts voters in the Senate special election of 2010, when they chose Republican Scott Brown over Martha Coakley. Though Massachusetts is staunchly Democrat, Coakley was perceived as an instrument of the Democratic party machine whose presence in the Senate would be instrumental for securing the passage of Obamacare.

Our theory suggests that political parties may stand in direct competition with voters for the skills and experience of their political representatives. On the one hand, politicians with higher human capital are better able to serve the interests of their voters. Unfortunately, these are precisely the individuals who are most appealing to their fellow politicians in the pursuit of goals that are often unrelated or even harmful to voters.

Much of our ongoing research tries to unearth the limits of elections as tools to discipline the behaviour of the politicians in the legislature. District elections are infrequent and highly decentralised events; when politicians enter national office, however, they simultaneously enter highly centralised power structures (parties and factions). Understanding what kinds of political institutions can ensure that voters are not left behind is fundamental for the proper functioning of democratic government. The mechanism we highlight in this research allows us to make sense of why voters occasionally favour amateur politicians with very little experience – so-called `outsiders’. Though such politicians may have less demonstrable skills and expertise, they can be better relied upon to serve their voters, rather than abandoning them in pursuit of their parties’ goals.

Evidence of what we show to be a fully rational anti-establishment sentiment is readily observed in politics across the world. In Kenya, Wesley Korir – a former marathon runner with no previous political experience - was recently elected as the only member of the Kenyan Parliament without a partisan affiliation. European populist parties consisting of self-declared political amateurs have also enjoyed significant success. For example, Italy’s Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Stars Movement), led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, has emphasised direct democracy. Though the 2013 elections yielded Movimento 5 Stelle the largest share of the popular vote, Grillo stresses the outsider-qualities of the group. The organization, he stresses, is not a party but a movement.

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