Müller, Philipp & Denner, Nora

Ideologie-inkonsistente Personalisierung und Abstimmung für populistische Kandidaten

The upswing of right-wing populist leaders across the globe is associated with a paradox. As a “thin” political ideology, populism’s core narrative is that of a Manichean divide between the elites and the ordinary people within society. The political and societal elites are deemed to seek their own benefits at the expense of the people—neglecting the popular will and depriving the people of their legitimate right to exert political sovereignty. In this context, the people are conceptualized as a homogeneous and virtuous group whereas the elite is depicted as a group of selfish and corrupt individuals who promote an ideology of postmodern liberalism, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitism at the expense of the people. In this constellation, populist actors present themselves as members and advocates of the imagined ordinary people, defending the ordinary people against the elite’s presumable agenda (Wirth et al., 2016).

Strikingly, however, the personal backgrounds of many populist leaders do not seem to match this narrative. From their biographies alone, they would instead very well pass as members of the unbeloved liberal and cosmopolitan elite. Apparent contradictions between leadership and ideology do not seem to deter populist voters (for a similar argument, see, Filc, 2011). Whether references to these politicians’ private lives and its potential inconsistencies with the populist narrative affect citizens’ voting preferences is, yet, unknown. The present study addresses this gap. Drawing from two experiments conducted in Germany, we investigate how ideology-inconsistent personalization affects voting for populist candidates. In doing so, we intend to shed light upon three questions: (a) Are voters simply indifferent regarding occurring conflicts between populist politicians’ lifestyles and their claims—or could portrayals stressing these inconsistencies actually deter populist voters? (b) Does information on different domains of populist politician’s ideology-inconsistent personal background have different effects on vote choice? (c) How can observed patterns be explained?


In order to test our hypotheses and research questions we conducted two online experiments in September and October 2019. In both experiments, participants were surveyed twice with a time lag of 48 hours between completion of the first survey round and invitation to the second. At t2, participants were randomly assigned to one version of a newspaper portray of a populist candidate which featured varying information on this politician’s private background. Study 1 employed a 3 × 3-between-subjects design. We varied localness (local-oriented vs. global-oriented vs. no specification) and social class (working class vs. upper class vs. no specification). We used a 2 × 2-between-subjects design for Study 2 and manipulated partner’s gender (female vs. male) and type of relationship (monogamous vs. polygamous). Moreover, we included a control group without information on either factor. The stimulus materials, data, and analysis scripts of this research are made permanently available via osf: https://osf.io/scfw5/.


Results indicate that information on all three domains under consideration, localness, social class, and traditionalism in family life, can impact voting for populist candidates.

For localness, we found that stressing a populist politician’s global-oriented biography corrupted the candidate’s perceived trustworthiness which translated into decreased voting intentions. Surprisingly, however, if the politician was portrayed as having stayed in her home region her entire life, this made no difference to her evaluation (in comparison to no biographical information).

In terms of the class background, results are also ambiguous. We found that emphasizing a working-class background had beneficial effects for warmth and trustworthiness, but not for competence. The latter, in turn, was strongly improved if the politician was presented with an upper-class (businesswoman) background—which decreased warmth and trustworthiness judgments, but mainly for non-populist citizens. All of these effects indirectly translated into voting behavior.

In Study 2, we turned to the populist politician’s family life, manipulating her partner’s gender and relationship type. Our initial assumption was that leading a traditional family life (male partner and monogamous) matched the tradition-loving populist ideology and should thus be more favorable for a populist politician. As expected, a polygamous relationship yielded negative effects. Surprisingly, however, a (female) populist politician raising children with a female partner was assessed more positively in terms of competence and warmth.

Interestingly, almost all observed effects of privatizing portrayals occurred among populist partisans and non-populist citizens alike. Only the negative effects of an upper-class background were moderated by populist attitudes.


Filc, D. (2011). Post-populism: Explaining neo-liberal populism through the habitus. Journal of Political Ideologies, 16(2), 221–238. doi:10.1080/13569317.2011.575685

Wirth, W., Esser, F., Wettstein, M., Engesser, S., Wirz, D., Schulz, A., Ernst, N., Büchel, F., Caramani, D., Steenbergen, M., Bernhard, L., Weber, E., Hänggli, R., Dalmus, C., Schemer, C., & Müller, P. (2016). The Appeal of Populist Ideas, Strategies and Styles: A Theoretical Model and Research Design for Analyzing Populist Political Communication (NCCR Democracy Working Paper No. 88). Zürich: NCCR Democracy. https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-127461


Titel (deutsch): Ideologie-inkonsistente Personalisierung und Abstimmung für populistische Kandidaten
Titel (englisch): Populist Words Speak Louder? Ideology-Inconsistent Personalization and Voting for Populist Candidates
Erhebungszeitraum: 09/2019–10/2019
Stichprobe (effektiv): 1.302
Stand der Informationen: 20.03.2023


Müller, P., & Denner, N. (2021). Populist words speak louder? Ideology-inconsistent personalization and voting for populist candidates. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 33, 799-817. https://doi.org/10.1093/ijpor/edaa042

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Philipp Müller

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