July 7th, 2020


2016: Do Looks Matter?

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published May 21, 2015

Over the course of the next year, you’re going to hear plenty of theories as to what guarantees victory in a president election.

For example, there’s the matter of candidates’ height — the premise being that the taller contender always wins. A few years ago, researchers at Texas Tech took a look at this and decided there was something to it — something having to do with voters and their primordial instincts.

The problem is, “caveman politics” hasn’t held up in the Information Age. In 2012, Mitt Romney was a shade taller than Barack Obama. In 2000, Al Gore stood higher (and sighed louder) than George W. Bush. Bush also was lesser in physical stature in 2004 (4-1/2 inches lower than John Kerry), but again he debunked the theory.

What then should we be looking at?

I’d go with youth. Dating back to Bill Clinton in 1992, the younger of the two candidates has earned more popular votes (yes, the applies to Gore in 2000). Which doesn’t bode well for Hillary Clinton, presuming she’s a 69-year-old Democratic nominee a year from this November.

Or, if you prefer, another variable: looks.

I refer you to this Huffington Post column that rationalizes why 2016’s winner will be . . . Marco Rubio. Why? for a lot of reasons you might guess: the Florida senator is young, ethnic, a genuine conservative and knows his foreign policy.

Plus this — the idea that the national vote truly is a beauty contest:

“The effects of physical looks on presidential elections are well documented. The most famous example was 1960, when John F. Kennedy was perceived by television viewers to have beaten Nixon in their presidential debate and radio listeners said Nixon won. Data confirms the importance of looks. Researchers at Princeton University found that the candidate voted as more competent-looking went on to win in 69% of the gubernatorial races and 72% of the Senate races. A University of California study quantified the effect of attractiveness at a 13% vote swing.

Marco Rubio is a young, handsome, attractive candidate who physically exudes a leader presence. For all the importance of money and policy on the outcome of elections, data seems to indicate that looks count for a whole lot. This will carry Rubio through the primary and help him beat Hilary Clinton in the general election.”

I’ll leave it to you to figure why this didn’t work for Mitt Romney . . .

Meanwhile, some numbers:

The 2016 presidential election marks the 9th such “change” contest over the past century — an open seat up for grabs.

I won’t bother trying to pick the winner of a beauty contest between, say, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.

But to recap how age and height worked out with regard to the victor:

2008: Obama younger and taller

2000: George W. Bush older and shorter

1988: George H.W. Bush older and taller

1968: Nixon younger and taller

1960: John F. Kennedy younger and taller

1952: Dwight Eisenhower older and taller

1928: Herbert Hoover older and taller

1920: Warren Harding older and taller

Height prevails seven out of eight times. Youth won out three times.

The bottom line: whatever factor you want to cook up — looks, age, height, weight, education pedigree, astrological sign, numbers of vowels and consonants in a last name — there’s only one candidate you want to be in a presidential contest. That would George Washington. He stood 6’2″, essentially ran unopposed and twice swept the Electoral College.

Good luck messing with the formula.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: “The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain.” During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.