Frequent TV viewers who don't get any kinds of other political news are the voters most likely to be influenced by a candidate's physical appearance, a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology study shows.
“Voters who watch a lot of television but don’t really know much about the candidates besides how they look are particularly susceptible,” Chappell Lawson, coauthor of the study, told MIT News. “The size of the effect is roughly equivalent to the influence of incumbency.”
MIT associate professors Lawson and Gabriel Lenz evaluated data from the 2006 U.S. Senate and governor’s races. They found that for every 10-point increase in the advantage a candidate had when rated by voters on his or her looks, there was a 5 percent increase in support for that candidate from uninformed voters who said they watch a lot of television. Uninformed voters who said they watch little TV only supported the candidate by an additional 1 percent.
“Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates' Appearance,” will appear in the July edition of the American Journal of Political Science. It draws upon the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) and a survey by Princeton University professor Alex Todorov, which asked voters to choose the most competent candidate based on looks alone.The study suggests that the effect of television remains present but diminishes as voter-information levels rise.
Lenz told MIT News that the effect could be linked to other aspects of a candidate's campaign, like attention to image management, but Lawson suggested otherwise.
“If people were really voting for other qualities that just happen to correlate with appearance, we would expect the high-knowledge voters to be at least as susceptible,” Lawson said.
This article appears in the July 18, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.