UT-Austin economist Daniel Hamermesh on Beauty and the Presidency

By Daniel S. Hamermesh

The physical characteristics of this season’s presidential candidates have received many comments. Texas Governor Perry had a full head of thick dark hair, as does Santorum; Romney’s jawline suggests strength; Obama looks presidential; and even Gingrich and Paul look fairly decent for men in their late 60s or mid-70s. None of the male candidates is follicly challenged. Among recent female candidates Palin and Bachmann would probably be viewed by most observers as good-looking. Indeed, one Republican advisor noted during the 2008 campaign, “If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, would we even be talking about her today?”

Looks might not matter in intra-party leadership contests in parliamentary democracies, where small groups of insiders choose the leader—as the Golda Meir example suggests. Nor might they matter in a one-party state, as the rise of Gustavo Dias Ordaz, Mexican president during the PRI era, from 1964-1970, suggests: When his enemies accused him of being two-faced, he remarked, “If I had another face, do you think I’d go around with this one?”

But do the candidates’ looks matter in elections in a democratic two- or multi-party state? Will their good looks, or their bad looks, affect the outcome of the election? A lot of research has shown that candidates’ looks do affect their electoral chances. In German, Finnish and Australian parliamentary elections better-looking candidates have been shown to be advantaged; and the advantage can be quite large, easily enough in many cases to overcome a large disadvantage resulting from voters’ party preferences. In U.S. gubernatorial elections citizens are able to predict who the winners would be based on very brief looks at the candidates speaking—they know that better-looking candidates are more likely to win.

Why does this happen? One reason is that in these lower-level elections the better-looking candidates get more press coverage. Like you and me, journalists, especially television journalists, prefer to look at better-looking candidates; and they know that you and I do too. We are more likely to watch their broadcast, or buy their magazine or newspaper, if they show us better-looking candidates. With additional press coverage comes more familiarity and a greater likelihood that voters will pick the candidate on Election Day.

In presidential primary elections the same factors are at play. In the early stages of the quadrennial presidential process looks may matter in determining who survives the winnowing process, although there is no research demonstrating this. Even before the first primary or caucus, though, some candidates who might think of running know that their bad looks will be a hurdle that will be difficult to jump early in the process. Knowing this, and thinking that they don’t have enough other advantages to overcome their deficient or perhaps only average looks, they will choose not to run. Even before the primary process is far along, otherwise desirable candidates who are looks-challenged will have excluded themselves from consideration, just as few bad-looking people choose to become movie actors.

Things change as the primary season progresses. People’s views about the (good-looking) candidates who have survived the early rounds become more sharply delineated. The candidates’ faux pas have become impressed on the public mind; their general political inclinations and their stances on specific issues have become widely known. Having heard more about and from the candidates, we feel that we know more about them than we infer merely from looking at their pictures. As with any interpersonal relation, the more familiar we are with people’s other qualities and characteristics, the less their looks matter.

It is not surprising that the major presidential candidates are typically quite good-looking. Their looks have already had an effect on our choices; they have already achieved some prominence, and their looks have been a factor in their initial success. Early on candidates self-selected into the process based partly on looks; and their survival in its early stages depended partly on their looks. By March or April of a presidential year, though, looks are much less important. And by the November election we will not be voting because we think President Obama is better- or worse-looking than Romney (or Santorum, or anyone else); we will be voting based on economic and political considerations.

The old comment is that, with his saturnine looks, Lincoln could not be elected President today. The mass media have greatly increased our familiarity with presidential candidates, initially with their looks, eventually with their beliefs and even their character. Lincoln might well not have survived the early stages of a primary season; but if he did, his character and beliefs might have become more widely apparent to the public than was possible in 1860. Exposure through the mass media might have helped him in a “fantasy-league” general election.

Daniel S. Hamermesh is the Sue Killam Professor in the Foundations of Economics at the University of Texas, Austin and author of BEAUTY PAYS: Why Attractive People are More Successful (Princeton University Press).


  1. Totally agree with you comment here Andrew. In lower-level elections the better-looking candidates get more press coverage because journalists, especially television journalists, prefer to look at better-looking candidates.