DP15686 Mobilization and the Strategy of Populism Theory and Evidence from the United States

Author(s): Gloria Gennaro, Giampaolo Lecce, Massimo Morelli
Publication Date: January 2021
Keyword(s): American Politics, Electoral Campaign, populism, Text Analysis
JEL(s):
Programme Areas: Public Economics
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=15686

We propose a theory of strategic adoption of populism in electoral campaigns, in which a populist campaign attracts disillusioned voters but demobilizes core partisans. Under these conditions, populism is more tempting for outsider candidates in districts with low political trust or high economic insecurity, and where the race is close. We test the theory on the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 and 2020 House elections. We apply automated text analysis to campaign speeches and websites, and construct a continuous index of populism in campaign documents. We provide supportive evidence in favour of the mobilisation effects of populism, and show that outsider candidates, in competitive races, resort to more populism in response to higher economic insecurity. Drawing connections between theories of electoral mobilization and populism, this paper shows that the interaction of economic and political conditions is key to understand where politicians are more likely to ride on popular discontent.