Political parties and candidates who focus on the poor tend to be on the left of the political spectrum. Yet right-wing parties frequently win elections in developing countries despite the fact that a large majority of the electorate lives in poverty. Why do so many poor voters favor right-wing candidates?

A team of political scientists from the University of Rochester explains the apparent contradiction in a recent article published in the American Journal of Political Science.

Anderson Frey, assistant professor of political science, and Zuheir Desai, who received his doctorate in Rochester in 2020 and is now assistant professor of political science in the School of Global and Public Affairs at IE University of Madrid, find that parties right-wingers successfully rely on so-called “descriptive representation” to win elections. Descriptive representation – in which candidates present themselves as sharing certain qualities with broad segments of their electorate – is based on the idea that a group is more likely to elect a candidate whose characteristics reflect some of the more typical experiences. and markers outside the group.

In other words, the candidates themselves must look alike. In the case of municipal elections in Brazil, candidates must appear less wealthy, less educated, less privileged to convince a majority of potential working class or lower class voters.

“Candidates in general – left and right – emphasize their resemblance to the target electoral population – in this case the poor – in any characteristic that might cause voters to view the candidate as one of them,” explains Frey. In the case of Brazil, candidates point to their lack of formal education to connect with these voters.

‘Descriptive representation’ works, but only when policies match

One would expect left-wing parties to jump at the idea of ​​class-based descriptive representation. Indeed, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (better known as “Lula”), a union leader in the 1970s who was president of the country from 2003 to 2010, often points to his lack of education. to emphasize his ability to succeed as a politician.

Yet Rochester political scientists uncover an empirical pattern in Brazil’s municipal elections that challenges conventional wisdom: it’s politics. law which really capitalizes on descriptive representation in the poorest areas, not the left.

“To credibly change their position, the right-wing party appoints candidates who are descriptively closer to the poor,” says Frey.

Frey and Desai develop a theory of candidate selection and political choice and test it by examining the Brazilian municipal elections from 2004 to 2016. They find that right-wing candidates only succeed in poorer regions when they can match. pro-poor policies adopted by candidates. left and manage to appear cut in the same fabric as their potential voters in areas of high poverty.

For example, the team finds that right-wing mayors in Brazil can afford to spend less on the poor than left-wing mayors in more affluent municipalities. But in very poor municipalities, the right not only has to match the policies of the left, it also nominates less educated candidates.

Why not go for the “real McCoy?” ”

What then prevents right-wing parties from simply nominating candidates with more genuine ties to the broad and less privileged population?

First, the selection of candidates is not done in a vacuum and depends on the pool available. In Brazil, as in most democracies around the world, the candidate pool does not really reflect the population. For example, while more than 60 percent of Brazilian voters did not graduate from high school, less than 20 percent of Brazilian mayoral candidates did not. This model is well established in even richer democracies such as Sweden.

“People with higher human capital, such as higher levels of education, are simply more likely to choose to enter politics,” Desai explains. “Basically, it is more expensive for political parties to nominate less educated and more poor-like candidates simply because it is too difficult to find them.

Second, there are a few aspects of the politics and electoral performance of mayors where parties and voters prefer candidates with what is called “higher human capital”. Desai and Frey find evidence to suggest that municipalities that are ruled by less educated mayors receive fewer resources from the federal government to invest in infrastructure projects, including hospitals and schools. In addition, these municipalities have lower enrollment rates and have fewer medical visits.

These candidates are also not as adept at winning votes for their parties in the following federal elections: “Voters could punish parties for nominating less educated candidates because of their worst administrative performance, despite a favorable redistributive political stance. to the poor, ”Desai explains.

This is why parties may be wary of nominating less educated candidates. “While this strategy may win them this election,” Desai said, “parties may have to sacrifice too much in the long run.”

Are the results reflected in the United States and elsewhere?

Right-wing municipal candidates in Brazil won because they used descriptive portrayal of pro-poor policies. Still, Frey and Desai warn that they can’t say whether the same evidence-based causal relationship exists for, say, the 2016 US general election. Frey, however, observes that despite his elite, the Former President Trump was able to connect with working-class voters by stressing his stance as an “outsider from Washington” and “speaking their language,” adding that President Biden appeals to his work as well. -class roots in an attempt to win over those same voters.

The same goes for Viktor Orbán, the right-wing leader of Hungary, who served as prime minister of that European country since 2010 and before from 1998 to 2002. According to Frey, Orbán demonstrates precisely the behavior they are studying – publicly describing himself as a “village boy”, with an “uneducated” past. “Orbán tries to identify with his targeted voters in order to signal that he will implement the desired policies, even if he is none of these things anymore,” Frey said.

Yet to know if these observations really confirm a true empirical model, researchers would have to establish the same causal link that Frey and Desai found in Brazil. Until then, all we know is more research is needed, the Rochester team warns.