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Does It Matter If Candidates Are Good-Looking?

- November 9, 2009

I’ve expressed some skepticism about the role of candidate appearance before. Now comes this new research from Matthew Atkinson, Ryan Enos, and Seth Hill:

bq. We estimate the effect of candidate appearance on vote choice in congressional elections using an original survey instrument. Based on estimates of the facial competence of 972 congressional candidates, we show that in more competitive races the out-party tends to run candidates with higher quality faces.We estimate the direct effect of face on vote choice when controlling for the competitiveness of the contest and for individual partisanship. Combining survey data with our facial quality scores and a measure of contest competitiveness, we find a face quality effect for Senate challengers of about 4 points for independent voters and 1–3 points for partisans. While we estimate face effects that could potentially matter in close elections, we find that the challenging candidate’s face is never the difference between a challenger and incumbent victory in all 99 Senate elections in our study.

This takes the study of candidate appearance out of the laboratory and into the field, where selection effects (better looking candidates in competitive races) and confounding factors (competitiveness, party identification) cannot be ignored. The results are very modest effects that are not sufficient to change outcomes. Candidate appearance is less important than the hype often suggests.

The paper is here or here (ungated).