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 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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