05/04/2013 08:00 EDT | Updated 07/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Campaigning election hopefuls should run on their record, UBC study suggests

OTTAWA - Voters are more inclined to support candidates who campaign on their experience than those who promote their ideological beliefs, a first-of-its-kind study by researchers at the University of British Columbia suggests.

The study, which examined voter preferences during a mayoral campaign in Italy two years ago, found voters responded more positively to a candidate's accomplishments, rather than his political philosophy.

"I always thought that this aspect about the competence of candidates was massively under-emphasized in campaigns," said Francesco Trebbi, the UBC political economist who headed up the study.

"You have a lot of discussion about emotional components and empty punchlines that are not specific about the details about the candidates."

Trebbi and his team targeted voters in Arezzo, Italy, with different types of campaign messages, and then examined the election results to see how the real-life lab rats were influenced at the ballot box.

They found that campaign materials based on the candidate's record resulted in an increase in vote share of 2.2 percentage points. Materials promoting the candidate's ideology, on the other hand, actually drove down the vote.

"You tend to have campaigns which are focused on likeability, or the surface," Trebbi said.

"I think people would be much more responsive actually to information about, 'Is this guy going to actually be able to think quickly on his toes and respond to emergency situations in a competent, poised way?'"

Veteran political strategists, however, say political campaigns are complex affairs, and voter behaviour can be difficult to predict.

A candidate's values and record are often intrinsically linked, said Guy Giorno, the former chairman of the Conservative party's 2011 election campaign.

"I think that your record is illustrative of things about you, illustrative of your character and of your values and of your approach," said Giorno, who teaches a course on political campaigns at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"The separation between the two is artificial."

Anne McGrath, who worked as chief of staff to former NDP leader Jack Layton, said a candidate's record often tells voters a great deal as they make the decision about where to cast their ballot.

"I think that people want to know that who they're voting for is trustworthy, can make decisions, and has good values," McGrath said.

"One of the ways that they judge that is by that person's record."

Veteran pollster Michael Marzolini says he has worked on some 580 election campaigns, including as chief strategist for the federal Liberal party between 1993 and 2000.

And while the study's conclusions might be true for the campaign it examined, it's hard to apply the lessons to other elections, he said.

"Elections are like people — they're all different," Marzolini said. "Every campaign is completely different from other campaigns. There's hundreds of variables that make up a campaign.

"Trying to say one-size-fits-all doesn't work in politics."

The paper — believed to be the first study of its kind conducted during a real campaign — was published for review last week by Trebbi, who worked with UBC Ph.D student Chad Kendall and a researcher at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.

The team took control of the Arezzo mayor's 2011 re-election campaign, dividing the city's electoral precincts into four groups. Some 77,000 eligible voters received materials with two different types of messages.

One group was targeted with a campaign based on the competence and effort of the candidate, emphasizing his record in office. The second campaign promoted his ideological beliefs, his values and the importance of solidarity.

The third group received a mix of both messages, and a fourth control group received no campaign materials at all.

By comparing the share of votes for the mayor in each precinct, and controlling for other factors, the team was able to establish how voters were influenced.

The research also suggests that campaign advertising from one candidate can cause voters to change their opinion of other candidates — even those who are silent on a particular issue.

"Suppose you have a Conservative candidate who is very precise and explicit about tax reform, but the Liberal doesn't talk about it. You can draw an inference about what the Liberal is going to do in terms of taxes," Trebbi said.

"Not talking about stuff is information."

Ultimately, Trebbi said, Canadian politicians could pay closer attention to the importance of stressing competence over partisanship.

"It would be a mistake to forgo the opportunity of passing specific, apolitical, non-ideological dimensions," he said. "I think it's important that people know the quality of the candidate, independent of the political position."