How Do We Evaluate Politicians?


The following responses are position pieces by panelists for our upcoming event. Each panelist approaches the question from their unique practical and research experiences. We ask that you consider the points being made by each speaker and formulate questions. Further, if you are not able to make it to the event, you may submit your questions in the comment section, social media, or via our contact page. With that, we hope you find the positions compelling, and find the discussion worth your time.

Matthew Herbert

Lawrence City Commissioner

Two things that seem to bring out the inner-expert in all of us here in Lawrence, Kansas are sports and politics.  In sports analysis we are blessed with statistics – a quantifiable measure by which we can demonstrate the might (and right) of our opinion in comparison to the contrasting opinion of another. In politics there is no such quantitative measure. The absence of a statistical basis for superiority however has rarely stopped residents from forming an opinion on politicians. The question becomes then, how should politicians be properly evaluated? The simple answer is this: in politics, perception is reality. It’s as annoyingly simple as that. Because we are absent a quantitative measure in our political arena, the will of the people is just that; what they will to be, so it is. There are no replays or unbiased arbiters to evaluate. There are only elections and the individual opinions they solicit.

With that in mind, and for the purpose of our discussion tonight, allow me to explore three areas in which my work as a city commissioner presents three somewhat unique variables to consider in weighing and evaluating the merits of a politician. The non-partisan nature of local government, the necessity of consensus building and the element of amateur politics. 

First and foremost, city commission politics is non-partisan. In 90% of the elections citizens will vote in throughout their life, they will find the ever comforting opt-out of paying attention that is political party labels. In making my choices for everything from president to governor to county commissioner, I am provided the option of not paying attention, but rather simply voting for the individual representing the party I am ‘accustomed’ to supporting. This is not true of city commissioners. What appears on the ballot is nothing more than our name. Your ability to make an informed election decision therefore requires a little more homework on your end and likely as a direct result, results in incredibly low voter turnout rates – typically less than 20%. In evaluating the performance of a city commissioner, this unique non-partisan standing changes the ‘coattail effect’ as a valid means of evaluation from anger/happiness towards one party to anger/happiness towards incumbents and leads to elections such as my first election of 2015 where no incumbents were retained, as well as my re-election campaign in 2017 where both incumbents running were retained.  

Secondly, in considering the topic of evaluation of a politician, I am immediately drawn to the singular nature of the word ‘politician’. In city commission politics however, the body serves as a collective of 5 none of which, the mayor included, hold any power above the other four. Put simply, you can achieve nothing on your own. Without three, there is none. As such, consensus building within the body becomes not only a political strategy but a minimum requirement to achieve anything. In considering how to evaluate a city commissioner politician then, one must keep in mind this element. Evaluation at this level becomes not ‘did he/she support the position exactly as I wanted it supported’ but rather, ‘did his or her position move the needle more in the direction of or away from your position’? 

Finally, in considering how to evaluate the work of a politician, local government once again throws a wrench into our plans with the amateur element. Most of the interactions residents have with their city government occur through the day to day workings of city staff. Whether it be trash pickup, water utility service or police/fire first responder interactions, residents of Lawrence form strong opinions about the role their local government has played in making their life better or worse in a multitude of ways. In spite of common belief, the city commission plays very little role in the day to day functions of the city. Indeed, none of us are professional politicians. Unless retired, every member of the Lawrence city commission works a separate full-time job and as such does not meddle in the day to day city functions. Put simply, virtually everything I get yelled at for occurred (or didn’t occur) completely and totally unrelated to my political position/ideology/actions/in-action. So then, how does one evaluate my role if not through day to day actions? Put in an overly simplified fashion for the purposes of this discussion: read the budget. As Joe Biden once quipped, “Don’t tell me your priorities, show me your budget and I’ll tell you your priorities”. Because the day to day tasks of the city occur with minimal oversight from local political figures, the success or failure of a city commissioner is largely how resources are allocated. Yes, road work frustrates us all when it occurs in our path and obstructs our daily commute, but is the amount of road work happening in the community consistent with the needs of maintaining our transportation sector? The answer to this is entirely based around the budget afforded to road work. The same question can be applied to all arenas of our local bureaucracy from parks & rec to the humane society to trash collection remembering of course that a budget exists in a zero-sum game scenario. This is a concept many commission candidates seem to struggle with. Wanting more money for road construction will necessarily require providing less money to something else. In this framework, has the priorities of the politician being evaluated aligned similarly with your priorities as a resident? 

In the end, politics as a sport and the politicians who play the game have no quantitative statistics. Your evaluation is yours alone regardless of the depth of prior knowledge and political acumen that went into the formation of the opinion to begin with. Perception is reality and elections are final.

How Identity Matters in Politics

Abbie Vegter

University of Kanas, Political Science

Social identity theory posits that individuals understand who they are based on their membership in a group. Identity is not just about objective membership in a group, but it about the meaning attached to it. This meaning is not inconsequential, but rather powerful, capable of influencing attitudes and motivating behavior. Our identity and the identity of the politicians we are evaluating impact our vote choice in substantial ways. After a brief overview of what identity is, I move to a discussion of why identity matters for politics. 

What is Identity?

Social identity theory posits that group membership matters to an individual’s sense of self. Originating with Henri Tajfel and John Turner (1979), who were the first to argue that an individual’s system of self-reference is derived from his or her membership within a group, social identity theory has been widely used in the literature to help explain political attitudes and behavior. The scholars suggested that individuals desire their group to be viewed positively and that desire influences how they not only see themselves, but also how they see out-groups. These social categorizations, therefore, necessitate a process to distinguish who is in our group and who is out; in other words, how do we develop understandings of “us and them.” Social groups can be based on attributes you cannot choose, such as your gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and those you can choose, such as religion and political party. Identity matters in our understandings of political behavior.

Why does Identity Matter for Politics?

Social identity significantly impacts both political attitudes and behavior. In Conover’s (1984) foundational work on group identity, she argues that politics have to activate your identity in order for that identity to impact political thinking. She explains that identities are linked to self-schemas, or the cognitive structure of prior knowledge merged with understandings of oneself, that in turn lead individuals to adopt difference political positions and evaluate politics from distinct perspectives.

The first step in perceiving someone is to classify that person into a category. Once classified, people apply organized generic knowledge about those categories to process information about the person and to make decisions about them. Individuals often use information that is readily available to them to categorize individuals. In other words, individuals are going to rely on stereotyping to categorize others and often, these stereotypes are based on identity.


Stereotypes are generic cognitive structures that draw on individual traits in order to categorize people. They are often used as an intellectual shortcut and in politics, they are especially likely when little else about a politician is known. People will use the identity of the politician they are evaluating, whether that be a candidate’s political identity, racial identity, religious identity, or so on, to process any new information about them in ways that fit with the stereotype.

Stereotyping undoubtedly impacts both political attitudes and behavior. It leads to bias processing of new information once the stereotype is applied and ultimately, can lead to discrimination against politicians based on their social identity. People employ the use of stereotypes to fill in missing information that can be inferred based on the social category of the person. In other words, stereotypes act as an effective heuristic that values efficiency over accuracy.

Political Attitudes and Behavior

Stereotypes matter, but not all social identities involve equally salient and impactful stereotypes. In her analysis of women candidates in the United States, Kathleen Dolan (2014) finds that the partisan identity of a candidate has more of an impact on candidate evaluation than gender stereotyping. H. Denis Wu and Renita Coleman (2014) find that candidate image matters more in individual evaluation than the candidate’s stance on issues. A candidate’s image is often attached to their social identity. Apart from just attitudes toward politicians, social identity has implications for political mobilization.

Groups shape political mobilization. When groups feel threatened that their status is at stake, they are more likely to show up and vote. In Ashely Jardina’s (2019) book establishing the emergence of a white social identity, she establishes that white Americans who identify strongly with their co-ethnics were more likely to support now-President Trump as a candidate and more likely to oppose a Latino candidate. She suggests that white racial identity has been activated recently as a result of Obama’s presidency, the racial cues of political leaders, mass immigration, and the threat of whites losing majority status in the United States. The emergent social identity increased turn-out in support of President Trump and has the power to influence the 2020 election.


In short, social identity matters for politics. This very brief, and frankly incomplete, introduction to the political implications of group stereotyping and social identity points to the importance of considering identity when trying to understand American politics and candidate evaluation. Political scientists expect the 2020 election cycle to be no different. Individuals will evaluate candidates based on their identity and those evaluations will impact their likelihood to turn-out.

How does social media influence politics?

Alcides Velasquez, PhD

University of Kansas

In general, we must be very careful when we ask about the effects of the media. Usually the answer is not so simple and involves complex processes. In the particular case of social media, the way we have tried to understand the relationship between technology and society is based on a concept somewhat complicated, and difficult to understand and define; but that can help us, at the same time, understand how communication technology can influence society. This is the concept of affordance.

 Before defining this concept, I’d like to take a step back and explain a bit the theoretical paradigm I talk from. The relationship between technology and society can be examined from three main different paradigms or perspectives: Technological determinism, Social construction of technology and Social shaping of technology.

 Broadly, technological determinism is the idea that technology will have the same effects everywhere, independent of the society we’re talking about, and its specific contexts. Social construction, refers to the idea that it is society what really creates and shapes technology. Technology is a product of specific social, economic, cultural contexts. They are a result of specific historical moments. Finally, Social shaping of technology suggests that both social contexts and technology shape each other. That’s where the concept of affordance is useful. Affordances refer to how the combination of the material characteristics of an object, together with how people relate to the object -based on their needs, motivations, context, and so on- enable certain uses. So, the affordances of social media can help us understand the way in which, given social media characteristics and the way we adapt them, give shape to particular uses and effects in society. The combination of affordances give possibility to certain uses and effects.

 So, what social media affordances might play a role in their relationship with politics?

 The first one that comes to mind is the “interactivity” affordance. The capability of talking, communicating, expressing our views on social media. And, the possibility of having other people react, respond, and talk back to us. The important thing here, is that social media enables users to generate their own content. Mass media does not allow for such thing. In social media it is regular users the ones that are generating the content. And usually when users publish their content, it is because they are or want to be interacting with others.

 Another important affordance is “temporal structure” or “synchronous/asynchronous” communication affordance. When we’re talking face to face, in real time with someone, the interaction is happening synchronously. But on social media, interactions take place asynchronously. This plays at the advantage of communicators. This enables more selective self-presentation. We have more time to craft our messages, and can edit ourselves. Contrary to a real-time interview, politicians can use social media to construct a more crafted or selective image of themselves. The same for regular users. This means that social media offers users -included politicians- a free channel where they can construct a particular persona, manage and perform their identity.

But at the same time, social media allows users to connect to a broader audience. This is the “reach” affordance of social media. On social media, users can connect with other people across other individuals’ social networks. The ability to connect with distant or not so distant others is an important value of social media. This is because it allows us to interact with a broad and potentially diverse social network. Moreover, social media messages can also be replicated. We can share and re-tweet others’ messages, broadening even more the reach of our social media interactions. From the perspective of a politician, this is great, because they know that their messages will reach a very wide audience, because users can reproduce or replicate their messages; multiplying the size of their audience.

However, this can also play against social media users’ political expression. As social media users know, our interactions, our posts, can potentially reach a very broad audience; an audience much bigger and different than the one we fist intended to interact with. This consideration might result in what we call “context collapse”. Context collapse is when the different social groups and social networks individuals belong to, become collapsed in one single space. That leaves people without a strategy for managing their impressions or identity they want to perform. Usually, we perform in different ways for different audiences. When our context collapses, we become “paralyzed” and our interactions become less personal, and they are less representative of specific aspects of our identity; including our political self.

At the same time, this ability to reach and connect to a broader audience might end up in more ideological homogeneity. We tend to connect with people that we consider more similar to ourselves in different relevant aspects. This can happen also on social media, as people tend to interact more and more frequently with those that are closer and more similar to them. This, paired up with social media algorithms, will lead to higher degrees of homogeneity. This can result in greater polarization, because when we associate more with people that tend to think like us, our attitudes become reinforced, potentially leading to more extreme views.

Shola Aromona

University of Kansas

Everyone is self-ish!

Why did you vote for the candidate(s) you voted for in the last election? Now take a deep breath and answer the question again. Did anything change? Will you still vote the candidate(s) if the same elections were held today?

My interest in studying how politicians use media as a tool for campaign – both during elections – and as a tool for governance – after the elections – and how the populace evaluates politicians and politics stem from my experience as a Nigerian with multiple identities which often collide in my daily activities. Having observed seven general elections in Nigeria and the trends in those elections, I conclude that politicians present their best selves during election campaigns using the media to propagate their campaign messages, and they use the media as a tool for image laundering or as a tool to suppress opposition and critics after the elections. My observation led me to investigate why politicians do this, and why the voting public, it appears, continues to make voting decisions that do not serve the public good, in the long run. Although my observations and research experience are mostly situated in the Nigerian political context, the similarity of politicians’ use of media and voters’ evaluation of politicians in Nigeria and the US, I would argue, is significant, especially in the age of social media. Based on my experience, I argue that there is an intentionality, albeit self-centric, in our decisions, and that everyone – politician and voters – is selfish and we are all subjective in our use of the tools available to us.

How do politicians use social media?

Goffman in his work on the Presentation of Self indicates a highly idealistic notion of human behavior that is aimed at showing off the best of oneself. Goffman used a metaphoric stage to map out social interactions and human behavior. According to him, the world is a stage and people, in everyday life, are like actors performing on a stage. Humans are wont to present their selves that are believable, and which elicit positive evaluation and approval from the audience, and the same can be said of politicians. Research on political campaigns has investigated how politicians live out this theory as a tactic during campaigning. Recently, the presentation of self on social media has recently taken a new form, given the affordances of social media.

In addition to presenting the best version of self on media platforms – electronic and print, politicians now leverage the affordances of social media to present their best personal selves. Because social media allows for curating a personal style and personae, politicians use their social media platforms for political personalization, which is the process of couching political issues in personal experiences, thus, highlighting their personal in the political.

Candidates share personal information that elicits the most favorable evaluation from voters. For instance, when talking about a topic on family income/tax, a male candidate might share personal information (e.g. photos with his family or details about a family vacation) that make him look credible to tackle policies about family income tax as well as homely to appeal to voters who may be interested in family, yet desirous of a competent leader.

Barack Obama is an example of a male politician using the family trope – sharing information about his wife and daughters- to elicit approval from individuals who value family life. In fact, president Trump has been suggested to not be an ideal president because he lacks warmth as a father or husband, which contrasts with how certain audience perceive President Obama.

It should be noted that a male politician can use the family trope to elicit positive evaluations on the warmth and competence scale, a female politician cannot. In May 2018, renowned feminist writer, Chimamanda Adichie at the PEN World Voices literary festival in New York City took Hillary Clinton to task by suggesting that Clinton’s Twitter bio was not feminist because “wife, mom, grandma” preceded “FLOTUS, Senator, SecState.” Days later, Clinton’s bio was changed, and “mom” and “wife” were preceded by ‘more competent’ titles. While this may seem little, the significance is not lost. A narrative that places a female politician as a mom or wife is often evaluated negatively, thus scoring low on competence and on warmth (if contesting against a male candidate).

Whether it is to use a populist approach, elitist approach, warmth-competent approach, it is evident that politicians use narratives that appeal to their audience and cause voters to favorably evaluate them.

How do voters evaluate candidates?

Susan Fiske, in her work on cognition and assessment, stated that humans are cognitive misers, indicating that humans generally depend on the heuristic to make decisions and do not engage in more complex cognitive exercise to assess an information. In the same vein, voters’ evaluation of candidates is largely based on the heuristics. Several studies have indicated certain variables that influence evaluation, including racial consideration, economic, political affiliation/ideology. These variables are often analyzed as distinct, separate indicators. I suggest that this is limiting in understanding how individuals perceive and evaluate candidates. I posit that evaluation is not a simple task of “this candidate is the best because we share the same party affiliation.” Or “this candidate is the worst because we share dissimilar perspectives on economic policies.” I suggest that voters’ evaluation of candidate patterns exist on a continuum and to understand it is to understand the various factors that are in play at every point of a voter’s decision to evaluate a candidate in a certain way and not in another way. I posit that the salience of the variables is often fluid and not static.

For instance, in the 2015 general election in Nigeria, my personal evaluation of the two top contenders for the presidency – President Goodluck Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari – were not based on a single variable, or on the same variable even, every time I had to assess their candidacy. A pilot study with a small size of Nigerian voters reflected my position: at different times, the factors aiding evaluation shifted. Once, it was the integrity narrative of the General that made some of the participants positively evaluate his candidacy (for whom the issue of corruption was salient), at other times, it was the General’s populism approach (which the incumbent President Jonathan employed in his 2011 campaign) that necessitated the positive evaluations.

While the factors for evaluating were changing, one thing was clear, these assessments were quite heuristic as the participants did not often spend more cognitive energy on the candidature. At best, the participants evaluated the candidates based on individual preference and issue/topic salience– who serves me the best or what issue is most important to me? Less thought was given to the candidate’s fit for the position outside the participant’s immediate self-need. The 2016 US election was no different. Voters for whom illegal immigration and perceived “job theft” was most salient positively evaluated President Trump. Thus, although political affiliation would mean negative evaluation of his candidature, if illegal immigration issue was most salient for a democrat, he or she would positively evaluate president Trump’s candidacy.

Going forward?

Again, politicians use of narratives aimed at putting them in positive lights makes it difficult to holistically evaluate candidates, especially if all we know about them are self-reported. Existing theoretical frameworks do not offer an indication of a likelihood that politicians would stop using tropes that are appealing to their audience. What then should we do? I suggest that voters perform more cognitive processing of the information about the candidates and make evaluations that are based on more complex unselfish indicators. I admit that it might be unfair to place this burden on voters, it appears to be a civic responsibility that we, as voters, owe ourselves as well as democracy – the fabric of society. Also, media practitioners also owe it as a matter of duty to explore and present other narratives that may aid voters in making balanced evaluations.