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The (In)effectiveness of Populist Rhetoric: A Conjoint Experiment of Campaign Messaging

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Abstract

Is populism electorally effective and, if so, why? Scholars agree that populism is a set of people-centric, anti-pluralist, and anti-elitist ideas that can be combined with various ideological positions. It is difficult yet important to disentangle populism from its hosting ideology in evaluating populism’s effectiveness and its potential conditional effects on the hosting ideology. We conduct a novel USconjoint experiment asking respondents to evaluate pairs of realistic campaign messages with varying populism-related messages and hosting policy positions given by hypothetical primary candidates. Although party-congruent policy positions are expectedly much more popular, we find that none of the populist features have an independent or a combined effect on candidate choice. We conclude by discussing the implications of populism’s apparent ineffectiveness.

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