Attractive candidates have an advantage among some voters: study

By Kase Wickman
Tuesday, July 19, 2011 9:18 EDT
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Though then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was chastised for spending campaign money on high heels and tight suits in 2008, and John Edwards was mocked for being caught fussing over his hair before a television appearance, they may have been onto something in trying to look their best. Results of a new MIT study showed that certain types of voters make their decisions at the polling booth based on candidates’ appearances, rather than their politics.

Low-information voters — those who are not political junkies and don’t actively seek out information about the issues and candidates they will be voting on — who watch a lot of television are most swayed by a candidate’s appearance, the study found. Using 2006 data, researchers found that a candidate who received, say, an 80 percent rating based on his or her looks received a 5 percent boost in votes from uninformed voters over a candidate who has garner a 70 percent attractive rating. For every 10 points of attractiveness, a 5 percent boost at the polls.

Among low-information voters who don’t watch a lot of television, there’s only a 1 percent bump for the more attractive candidate.

The results of the study are published in the American Journal of Political Science, in a paper called “Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates’ Appearance.”

The bump in votes that an attractive politician receives is not to be discounted, according to Chappell Lawson, an MIT political science professor who coauthored the study.

“The size of the effect is roughly equivalent to the influence of incumbency,” he said, citing the large advantage politicians have when they face reelection against a new opponent.

The message of the study serves as not only an interesting political phenomenon, but as a warning to those in the media and others involved in educating voters, the study’s other co-author said.

“The broader policy implication is that we’re asking voters to make really difficult decisions in these races,” Gabriel Lenz, who is also a political science professor, said. “And we’re not making readily available the information many of them need to make those decisions.”

Kase Wickman
Kase Wickman
Kase Wickman is a reporter for Raw Story. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and grew up in Eugene, OR. Her work has been featured in The Boston Globe, Village Voice Media, The Christian Science Monitor, The Houston Chronicle and on NPR, among others. She lives in New York City and tweets from @kasewickman.
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