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:
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.
“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.”