This study investigates the relationship between personality and political careers. Drawing on a unique survey of municipal candidates from two Canadian provinces (N = 1193) and supplemented with survey data from citizens (N = 1665), we test for personality differences in candidate recruitment and electoral success. Results reveal significant personality differences between candidates and citizens, as well as between winning and losing candidates. Compared to other citizens, candidates are higher in extraversion, openness to experience, and emotional stability. As for the difference between electoral winners and losers, openness to experience is associated with a slightly higher likelihood of losing an election. These differences in personality traits emerge independent of other background characteristics such as age, education, and gender. Ultimately, the psychological dispositions that influence running for office and winning an election are not the same.
Personality traits are associated with significant variation in political attitudes and behaviors (see Gerber, Huber, Doherty, & Dowling, 2011). One strand of this literature that has grown in recent years is the personality of political elites. Research on the personalities of political leaders has a rich history drawing from a multitude of methodologies, beginning with psychoanalytic approaches and case studies (e.g., Lasswell, 1930) to questionnaires completed by politicians (e.g., Dietrich, Lasley, Mondak, Remmel, & Turner, 2012; Joly, Soroka, & Loewen, 2018).
“The core concept” of the political personality, writes Hennessy (1959, p. 338), “is that certain personality [traits] are in some sense significantly related to political activism – that some people are ‘natural’ politicians while others are not.” Is it the case that ‘certain types’ of people are more likely than others to run for office? While there is a growing scholarship that explores personality differences between political elites and citizens (e.g., Caprara, Barbaranelli, Consiglio, Picconi, & Zimbardo, 2003; Nørgaard & Klemmensen, 2019), to our knowledge no study has taken the natural step further and examined these differences between electoral winners and losers (but see Joly et al., 2018, who analyze the number of preferential votes received). Among those who stand for election, to what extent are psychological predispositions associated with winning or losing the election? We build on an emerging literature around personality and running for office by exploring variation in electoral success with data from a large survey of municipal candidates from two Canadian provinces, coupled with data from a large survey of citizens.
We report results from large surveys of municipal election candidates and adult citizens in two Canadian provinces. In line with other studies on personality and political ambition, the findings show that personality traits are reliably associated with running for election, independent of other psychological and social background characteristics. Compared to citizens, local candidates self-reported higher levels of openness to experience, extraversion, and emotional stability. This study advances our understanding of the role of personality in elections by exploring the influence of personality on candidate recruitment and electoral success. We find that candidates receive a slight electoral penalty for their relatively higher open-mindedness. Thus, candidates' personalities could substantively influence the results, especially in close elections. Ultimately, our findings demonstrate that the psychological predispositions that help distinguish candidates from other citizens are not necessarily the same as those that may help candidates get elected.