Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Republicans Like Candidates Who Look Republican

• January 10, 2012 • 11:27 AM

Although they can’t put their finger on what a Republican looks like, when GOP voters think someone looks Republican, that candidate gets more votes.

Will the Republican who wins the New Hampshire primary be the candidate with the most money, the best message, or … the most Republican mug?

While no scientifically proven criteria exists for what makes a politician look like a Republican, plenty of people seem to think they can spot a party affiliation on a candidate’s face. Maybe it’s something in the eyebrows, or the cheekbones, or the cast of a jaw line (or insert your humorous observation here). Whatever it is people are responding to, new research suggests that looking like a Republican may help politicians win over Republican voters.

“We were interested in seeing whether people could reliably tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats based on their appearance,” said Chris Olivola, a fellow at the University of Warwick and the lead author on the new research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Past studies have revealed that voters tend to prefer politicians who look competent (as the people looking at them define it, that is).

Competency, after all, is subjective. But party affiliation is not. This means researchers could test people’s perceptions of political facial stereotypes against reality — and measure whether those perceptions seemed to have an impact in actual elections.

To do this, Olivola and his co-authors first presented subjects with 256 pairs of rival candidate headshots from gubernatorial elections in the U.S. between 1995 and 2006, and from Senate elections between 2000 and 2008. They excluded any third-party candidates in a race, and then asked subjects (undergraduate students at Princeton) to assess a screen grab such as this one:

[class name="dont_print_this"]Republican Candidate Test[/class]

Your average undergraduate student at Princeton, it turns out, does a better job at this game than sheer chance would suggest. The more striking findings from the study, however, came out when the researchers compared these perceptions to actual election results and, later, the party affiliations of individual voters.

The more Republican politicians seemed to look to people, the more votes they gained in red states at the actual polls. The facial stereotypes, in other words, predicted the outcomes of real elections. But that wasn’t the strangest finding.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

“To our even greater surprise,” Olivola said, “we found no relationship whatsoever for left-leaning states. We certainly hadn’t predicted that. That was a big surprise.”

Blue states, it appears, didn’t exhibit this phenomenon in the same way.

“For some reason,” Olivola said, “and we don’t know what the reason is — and I should stress these are correlations, we can’t make a strong causation story — what these results suggest at least is that for Republican voters, their votes seem to be influenced to some extent by how Republican versus Democratic the two rival candidates look.”

This finding raises another question: Does this difference between Republican and Democratic voters exist at the macro level — between red states and blue states — or at the individual level, in some distinction between the way liberals and conservatives perceive candidates?

To get at this question, the researchers performed a second set of experiments presenting the same headshot pairs to a group of subjects online. The researchers then asked the subjects about their own political affiliations. The conservative voters, it turned out, were more influenced by the facial stereotypes than the liberals (as their preferences were compared to other participants’ guesses).

This means that conservatives are more likely to be influenced by how Republican they think a candidate looks, whether they live in Massachusetts or Alabama. (It also means, oddly, that a Democratic candidate who looks sort of Republican may actually pick up a couple of Republican voters this way in a right-leaning district.)

So what does all of this imply for the much bigger picture, for our understanding of how voters in a democracy make decisions?

“It’s not a victory for democracy,” Olivola said. “These results do suggest that people seem to be influenced to some extent — not entirely, thank goodness — but to some extent by political candidates’ appearances,” and not just by their brute attractiveness.

And this is all the more mystifying given that voters don’t have to size up a politician’s cheekbones to figure out who the real Republican is. That information is readily available — right there on the ballot.

“Why would a Republican vote for the more Republican-looking candidate if the ballot is telling them, ‘No, the other guys is actually a Republican’? Why would they be swayed to do that? We don’t know. It is kind of worrying.”

The researchers also don’t know exactly what it is in the candidates’ appearances that people are reacting to. They suspect that it’s permanent features (facial structures, for instance), and not ephemeral ones (the sweep of a haircut). But what Olivola would really like to better understand is why liberals and conservatives appear to behave differently with this information.

“I realize with some hesitation that people are going to jump to conclusions about these results and say ‘all Republicans are superficial,’” he said. “I would caution against doing that. We don’t know exactly what’s going on. It’s certainly perplexing. But before we draw any conclusions whatsoever about what could be going on among Republican versus Democrat voters, we need to figure this out. We need to have more data.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.