Politicians – we warn you not to be wealthy…

April 20, 2012, 10:07 AM GMT+0

If politicians have to start revealing their tax returns, how will voters respond?

To test this, we tried a very simple split sample experiment. We showed a third of a normal YouGov sample the profiles of two imaginary candidates, called John and George:

John Burns is 48 years old, and was born and brought up in your area, before going to University to study for a degree in mathematics. After university John set up his own computer software business, from which he takes a salary of around £28,000 per year. John has interests in the health service, the environment, and pensions, and is married with three children.

George Mountford is 45 years old; he lives in the constituency and studied business at University. He is a solicitor and runs a busy local practice, earning around £45,000 per year. George is passionate about education, with two children in local schools and a wife who is a primary school teacher.

And then we asked them the following questions:

Without knowing which party they stand for, which of them do you think would be:

More approachable as an MP

More experienced as an MP

More effective as an MP

Which would you prefer as your MP

Initially, John was the clear winner. He was seen as more approachable (by 53% to George’s 18%), more effective (39% to George’s 25%), and as the overall preferred candidate (52% to George’s 19%). George did lead on experience, but only slightly (by 31% to 27%), and the plurality response on that question (42%) was for neither candidate.

But we showed another third of the sample the same profiles, just with one small difference: this time John made £100,000 from his business each year, rather than £28,000. Everything else about the candidates’ profiles stayed the same. Did voters reward John for having been more successful? Answer: absolutely not. The ratings of the John who made £100k fell through the floor compared to those of the John who made £28k. Now it was George who was the public’s preferred candidate on approachability (by 47% to 25%), effectiveness (33% to 29%), and most importantly overall preference (43% to 29%). John’s 33 point lead when he earned the average male salary was transformed into a 14 point deficit when he was financially more successful. (He was now seen as mildly more experienced, but only by two percentage points, and again the plurality response on that question was for neither candidate.)

The final third of the sample saw an even more wealthy John – this time earning a cool million a year – and with even more negative results. George now led on every question, and on overall preference by 24 points: just 24% of the sample chose the millionaire John as their preferred candidate, 48% chose George. In other words, John’s initial lead of more than 2:1 when he earned £28,000 had been reversed into a 2:1 deficit as a millionaire.

Does it matter where the income comes from? In a further survey, we repeated the experiment, but this time we changed John’s source of income. Instead of having set up his own business after University, John now joined a large multinational finance company’. Again, everything else about the profiles stayed exactly the same.

The effect was to make John less attractive as a candidate. When he earned his £28k from a finance company, he led by George by 19 points (45 to 26), less than the 33 points that the £28k-earning businessman John had been ahead. When we increased his income to 100k, that lead was transformed into a 26 point deficit (worse than the 14 points he had trailed as a 100k-earning businessman), and when we whacked his salary up to a million, the deficit became 41 points, worse than the 24 points he had trailed as a businessman earning the same salary. Just 15% of the sample said that they would like the millionaire financier as their candidate, compared to 45% who chose exactly the same candidate, with the same interests and backgrounds, but just earning less money. That said, it’s not that extra money hurts financiers any more – it’s just they start from a lower base. The difference between our businessman on average income and one earning a million was a drop of 57 percentage points in his lead over the competing candidate; the difference between a financier on average income and one on a million was 60 percentage points.

So money hurts – and a lot of money hurts a lot. It would be perfectly plausible for voters to have rewarded candidates for being financially successful – on the basis that someone who had succeeded for themselves might be exactly the sort of person you would want advocating for you. But there is no evidence of that at all. In each of the six pairs of candidates presented in this experiment, the public went for the candidate with the lower salary. As levels of income rise, the damage seems to be particularly severe when it comes to the candidate’s perceived approachability (which may not be that much of a surprise), but the problem for the financially successful is there is no counter-balancing benefit in terms of perceived experience or effectiveness.

NOTE: Fieldwork using the YouGov Plc UK panel (350,000+ adults who have agreed to take part in such surveys) was undertaken on 10-11 April 2012 (sample of 1,727 people) and 11-12 April 2012 (sample of 1,686 people). Figures have been weighted to be representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). All text is solely the opinion of the authors.