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Research shows knowing personal details of politicians may reduce bipartisanship

Will sharing a hobby or favorite movie make you like a politician more? The chances are pretty good, and it might even lead to a decrease in partisanship and division between political parties, found MSU Political Science Professor Jennifer Wolak.

“Politicians who share nonpolitical details about themselves secure warmer evaluations from the public,” Wolak found in her latest publication, “How Political Content in Us Weekly Can Reduce Polarized Affect Toward Elected Officials,” in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics. 

Wolak’s research started by reading a column in Us Weekly titled “Ted Cruz: 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me (I Can Quote Every Line from ‘The Princess Bride!)” The U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate shared details from the trivial, “My first video game was Pong,” to the impactful, “My dad was imprisoned as a teen in Cuba before he escaped to the U.S. on a student visa.”

The Texas Republican also shared he hates avocados, wears cowboy boots every day and is on level 350 of Candy Crush.

“It made me think about how much nonpolitical details might help humanize politicians. So I designed an experiment to see if this was true,” Wolak said. 

What she found is that when politicians share personal details about themselves, they gain voter support, especially among those in the opposing party. 

“This is important to those interested in reducing party divisions in the electorate. Things like candidate-centered campaigns, personal posts on social media and candidate appearances on talk shows have the potential to help depolarize partisan thinking about politicians,” Wolak wrote.

The idea is that politicians invest a lot of money and time in managing their image with the idea of making themselves “likable” and seen as people, not just politicians. 

“Reading this type of personalizing information also can contribute to ratings of elected officials that are less polarized by partisanship,” she wrote. “While personalizing information boosts favorability toward politicians across party lines, members of the opposing party are particularly likely to report warmer affect toward the politician they read about. This suggests that this type of soft news coverage has the potential to depolarize partisan evaluations of politicians.”

Similarly, politicians share photos of themselves with their family and share their upbringing hoping to be seen as a “good” person. 

Wolak conducted an experiment by giving participants a short list of personal, nonpartisan details about one of two well-known elected officials (Cruz or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont), and were then asked about their impressions of the senator. 

She found that personal details led to “warmer evaluations” and participants perceived the senator as more likable, more trustworthy and more willing to make compromises than those in the control group.

“When elected officials share details about their personal quirks and background, they shift how people see them as individuals. It suggests that the apolitical personalizing details people encounter in soft news are not interpreted through the same schema as traditional news,” she wrote. “Rather than perceiving elected officials as only politicians, they also see them as people.”

The greatest boost in evaluations came from those who do not share the same partisan leanings as the politician, she found. 

The difference between these types of columns and campaign ads or mainstream news is that it is viewed more as entertainment than political news. Because lists such as those in US Weekly focus on personal attributes, and do not include political stances, readers focus on them as individuals rather than through a political stereotype, Wolak found. 

“Soft news may present information in a way that does not necessarily activate partisan reasoning. In the case of personalizing details, the content is not particularly political in nature. Politicians are not describing their partisan views or policy priorities; instead they are sharing their hobbies, interests and personal anecdotes,” she wrote. 

The upswing is that candidates can not only boost their own image but can temper the negatively of opposing parties and increase their ability to build a coalition.

“For those interested in undercutting the power of partisanship in politics, returning to a candidate-centered campaign style might be one way to do so.”

Wolak is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on political behavior in the American context, with particular focus on political psychology, public opinion, gender, and state politics. She is the author of Compromise in an Age of Party Polarization, published by Oxford University Press in 2020. 

She has also published in the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, and the British Journal of Political Science, among others. She earned her PhD in 2004 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She worked at the University of Colorado at Boulder prior to joining the department in 2021. 


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