The first televised U.S. presidential debates in 1960 changed the face of American political campaigns. During that initial debate, television viewers listened to each candidate and also saw Nixon’s wrinkled shirt and five o’clock shadow, and Kennedy’s youthful demeanor and classic good looks. It has become a commonplace trope that radio listeners deemed Nixon the winner, but television viewers thought Kennedy won. In any case, candidates have increasingly focused on “looking the part” of the vigorous and attractive candidate ever since.
A 2011 study by political scientists at MIT published in the American Journal of Political Science, “Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates’ Appearance” , examines the extent to which a candidate’s appearance impacts his popularity with less informed voters. The study uses data from 35 gubernatorial and 29 Senate races in 2006 correlated with the results of a survey measuring voter intent, general levels of political knowledge, and hours of television exposure.
In gubernatorial races, a voter who watches more television places slightly more importance (7%) on a candidate’s appearance than the typical voter. Among these higher-intensity viewers, those identified as “low-knowledge” voters are11% more likely to judge a gubernatorial candidate by his or her appearance. A similar effect was seen in Senate races during the same period, with 16% of “low-knowledge,” higher-intensity TV viewing voters more likely to judge a candidate based on appearance.
Put simply, “Candidate appearance matters more … when less informed individuals watch a good deal of television.” Low-information voters are 10% more likely than their high-information counterparts to judge a candidate’s abilities on his or her looks; low-information, higher-intensity TV viewing voters are 32% more likely to judge a candidate by appearance.
In summary, “Among low-knowledge individuals (bottom quartile), a 10 percentage point increase in their appearance advantage leads to only a .8 percentage point increase in vote share among those who watch little or no television, a 2 percentage point increase among those with average TV viewing, and a 4.8 percentage point increase among those who watch the most TV. Since 10 percentage point differences in appearance advantage are common, as one standard deviation is 20, the effect is considerable.”
There is no appreciable difference between high-information voters who don’t watch much TV and those who do. “Television fails to exacerbate the appearance effect among more knowledgeable individuals.”
Researchers conclude, “Since the advent of television, political observers have fretted about the degree to which it privileges image over substance … The results we report appear to confirm some of these long-standing fears. Politicians who merely look the part benefit from TV, especially among less informed citizens.”