Skip to main content

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.
A joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Shutterstock)

A joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Shutterstock)

I asked a classroom full of college students the other day what they look for in their congressional candidates. I received what I’ve started to consider the stock answers: experienced, independent, intelligent. Not one of my students said good looks. Yet a host of academic studies show that candidate appearance matters a great deal in terms of how people vote.

Studies across disciplines conducted both experimentally in a laboratory setting and using observational, real world data have found that voters are affected by what candidates look like. Some studies have focused specifically on attractiveness, and found that people prefer to vote for more physically attractive candidates. Other studies have focused on how competent candidates look and have found that voters tend to favor candidates they think look more competent (regardless of whether or not they actually are). Of course, these two things are not synonymous: Barbie and Ken may look very beautiful because they have perfectly symmetrical faces, but they don’t necessarily look competent enough to decide whether the United States should send troops into battle.

The findings of this study suggest that when women challenge other women, the race can boil down to a beauty pageant.

Looks matter so much that not only are people more likely to vote for candidates that are more attractive, they can also guess the winner of an election they know nothing about with amazing accuracy simply based on pictures. In one study, researchers showed pictures of candidates in Ireland to a group of voters. Without knowing any other details about the candidates, about 80 percent of the voters were able to correctly pick the winner of the election. Another study demonstrated that people can guess the winner of an election even when the candidates are from a different country. In the study, Americans and Indians were shown pictures of candidates running for elected office in Mexico and Brazil, and even still they accurately guessed the winners most of the time. Of course, this isn’t something unique to politics. Severalstudies have found that looks matter in the labor market as well. People who are more attractive are paid better regardless of occupation.

However, recent research suggests that how much looks matter (and which kind of looks) may depend on whether you are a man or woman and who you are running against—a finding that makes for a fun prediction game leading into November 4th.

The authors of that recent study—Rodrigo Praino, Daniel Stockemer, and James Ratis—found that when two people of the same sex run against each other (man vs. man or woman vs. woman), the more attractive candidate tends to receive more votes. But when women and men face off, the candidate that looks more competent receives more votes.

This may help to explain why women hold only 20 seats in the U.S. Senate and 79 in the House of Representatives despite making up just over half of the population. Studies suggest that people stereotype women as less competent and that competence and masculinity may be one and the same. Obviously, women have an uphill battle in attempting to look more masculine than men. Add to that the fact that historically women were barred from holding office and you get a scenario where, because women must challenge male incumbents who have more elected office experience, it’s not surprising that their success rates are relatively low.

What Praino and his colleague’s research suggests is that women are not only disadvantaged most of the time because they have to challenge well-funded incumbents if they wish to gain elected office, but also because of their looks. Also discouraging is the fact that the findings of this study suggest that when women challenge other women, the race can boil down to a beauty pageant.

This year, nine women are running for governor (four incumbents, three running for an open seat, and two facing incumbent men), 15 are candidates for U.S. Senate, and 161 are on the general election ballot for the U.S. House of Representatives. In most races, men will be facing off with other men. In only two Senate races and 14 House races will women oppose other women.

Most of these races will be determined by a few factors other than looks, of course, like whether one of the candidates is an incumbent and the party preference of the electorate. But there are a few tight races in which the populous is evenly split between the two parties and there is no incumbent running.

Interestingly, the two open-seat Senate races that are currently viewed as toss ups (Georgia and Iowa) both have a female and a male candidate running against each other. In Georgia, Michelle Nunn (D) and David Perdue (R) will face off on Election Day, and in Iowa, Joni Ernst (R) is facing off against Bruce Braley (D). Also, the two open-seat Gubernatorial races that are tight in the polls have a female and a male nominee (Massachusetts and Rhode Island). Given that we are just weeks from the election, the voters who have yet to make up their mind are exactly those with the least information. These races could very well be decided by appearance alone.