A recently published study of male and female voters done by the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University revealed that while both men and women are likely to vote for the most competent candidate, men are more likely to vote for attractive female candidates, and women are likely to support the more approachable candidate.
In the study voters judged a series of male and female candidates in a hypothetical presidential election on how competent, approachable, dominant, and attractive they seemed based on their facial appearances. The voters were shown a pair of presidential candidates and asked to choose which candidate they would support.
The results indicated that the gender of both the candidate and the voter impacted the kind of facial expressions that predicted voter behavior. The study found that, “All voters are likely to vote for candidates who appear more competent. However, male candidates that appear more approachable and female candidates who appear more attractive are more likely to win votes. In particular, men are more likely to vote for attractive female candidates whereas women are more likely to vote for approachable male candidates.”
The point is that gender and physical appearance can matter more than positions on the issues. Men are especially prone to supporting an attractive female candidate. Research has long shown that the rational voter does not exist. All voters, whether they are conscious of it or not, use personal cues when deciding whether or not to support a candidate, this is why it is so important for candidates to connect with voters. Candidates that appear cold and impersonal are much less likely to win an election.
It may be discouraging to some that the American people don’t sit around intellectually discussing the issues and making an informed decision, but in an era where most people get their information about an election from 30-60 second television ads, this isn’t all that surprising. The willingness of men to support an attractive female candidate explains the Republican strategy of running attractive female candidates for office. These candidates may not be the most qualified, but they are the most likely to get the support of the white men who make up the base of support for the GOP.
It is not a big shock that women are more likely to vote for an approachable candidate, and men are most likely to vote for a physically attractive female candidate. No matter how good looking or approachable a candidate is, if they aren’t viewed as competent, they won’t win, but if the competency issue is off the table, gender biases can play a sizable role in determining the outcome of an election.
John McCain, John Kerry, and Al Gore all struggled with warmth and approachability, and they all lost. The new development is the Republican strategy to seize on this gender bias. It didn’t work in 2008 with Sarah Palin. We will see what it yields for Republicans tonight, and it will definitely be put to the test in 2012.