Presidential election or beauty pageant?

Some studies suggest a candidate’s appearance could play a role in electability.

Presidential election or beauty pageant?

Brian Arola

Poise, eloquence and charisma — all are qualities Americans have come to expect in their presidents.

But do looks play just as big a part in who Americans decide to run the country? According to some studies, that may be the case.

For years studies have looked at attractiveness as a major influence on voters’ initial assessments of politicians.

That changed in 2005 when Alexander Todorov, a Princeton University professor of psychology, released findings that suggested “competent” looking faces, not necessarily attractive ones, were what drew voters.

Todorov’s findings suggest a competent face is masculine yet approachable, with a square jaw, high cheekbones and large eyes.

Thomas Lee Budesheim, associate professor of psychology at Creighton University, has also done research in this area in the past.

“What we were looking at is to what extent people paid attention to the issues and based their judgment on the issues as opposed to their appearance,” Budesheim said.

His research found that it is psychologically common for people to make quick judgments about others, not just politicians, based on their initial feelings toward their looks.

“Not surprisingly, we make those assessments of people all the time very, very quickly just on the basis of how they look,” he said.

Todorov’s study included showing college students the images of two unfamiliar candidates and asking them to choose the more competent-looking one.

The candidates chosen as more competent-looking won 67 percent of the time in U.S. House of Representive elections from 2002 to 2004 and 72 percent of the time in Senate elections from 2000 to 2004.

Because most Americans are familiar with what the presidential candidates look like, it can be tough to do the same study on presidential races. People will usually have their opinions set on the subjects.

Looks are also unlikely to sway partisan voters, Budesheim said.

“If you’re a hardcore partisan … I don’t think these things are as likely to sway you one way or the other,” he said. “You’re not going to suddenly vote for the good-looking, nice-looking person who happens to disagree with everything you fundamentally believe.”

Yet there is a group of voters most likely to be swayed by appearance: television watchers.

A study done by political scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that low-information voters who watch a lot of television are most likely to vote based on appearance.

At the release of the study in July 2011, Chappell Lawson, the co-author of the study, said the aesthetic advantage a candidate might hold among low-information voters is “roughly equivalent to the influence of incumbency.”

Many University of Minnesota students said they consider President Barack Obama to be the better-looking candidate.

Kristen Reich, a health and wellness senior, said she prefers Obama’s appearance over Romney’s.

“[Romney] just looks older, not that that’s a bad thing,” she said. “I mean older can be wiser, but I just think Obama looks like he has more leadership qualities.”

Romney looks and acts “very stiff,” while Obama has a friendlier look, said Alia Jeraj, a math and vocal performance freshman.

Animal science sophomore Shannon Kegley compared Obama’s handsomeness to former President John F. Kennedy.

Despite some University students’ preference for Obama’s appearance, Romney is taller than Obama, and political observers have long said that the taller presidential candidate often wins.