Winning an election is all about selling your brand, say marketing researchers. And that brand better look good.
A presidential hopeful's appearance can be crucial to election outcomes, researchers say. Whether sporting a slick, classic hairstyle or showing a commanding bit of gray, and whether the candidate looks scholarly or masculine, can all impact voter perceptions.
Further, a candidate's party affiliation will affect which appearance traits draw the most voter support.
"The reality is that these campaigns are run like marketing campaigns," said Michael Lewis, a marketing professor at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. "They're driven by focus groups, there's a lot of advertising, and people use marketing language, such as 'positioning.'"
"I'd love to say that it was all about content and substance and the guys with the good ideas were going to rise to the top, and the candidates with poorer ideas are going to end up at the bottom," said Caroline Keating, a professor of psychology at Colgate University in New York. But, she said, "style does matter because it's the carrier of those important messages and without that vehicle the good ideas are not heard."
The bottom line: John McCain may be benefiting from his gray hair. Mitt Romney should work on eye contact, Barack Obama is not hurt by his affable nature and Hillary Rodham Clinton is perhaps in the toughest spot of all.
Jock or college professor?
Lewis and his colleague JoAndrea Hoegg, a professor at the University of British Columbia, examined 112 congressional elections in 2000 and 2002.
"Republicans tend to do better when they look like a high-school quarterback or a CEO — square jaw, cropped hair," Lewis said. "Democrats did better when they had the look of a college professor."
Lewis cautions that appearance doesn't decide elections, however, and is just part of the political campaign pie.
A past study found that voters preferred candidates who resembled themselves in appearance. "The candidate who most resembles you in a non-verbal sense, you're more likely to support that candidate, especially if you don't know much about the candidate's platform," said Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science and communications at Stanford University. His research has shown the appeal of candidates that resemble you is strongest for unfamiliar candidates.
Lewis and Hoegg found that the look of the individual candidates seemed to transfer information about their personal characteristics.
In the research, participants looked at pictures of pairs of opposing candidates in the congressional elections and indicated which candidate appeared more competent, more intelligent, more likable and more trustworthy. The researchers chose congressional, rather than presidential, elections so that participants would not come into the study with preconceived notions of each candidate.
"The key was just that most congress people aren't well known, with a few exceptions," Lewis said, noting that they excluded any candidate for which a subject indicated a familiarity.
They found that candidates who were labeled as more competent and more trustworthy were more often identified as Republican, while Democrats were more often linked with traits of likeability and intelligence.
So how do the current presidential candidates stand up to the looks litmus test?
Regarding appearance, perhaps the prettiest of them all is John Edwards, who just bowed out of the presidential nomination race. Was it the hair?
"Hair was a big issue," Lewis said of his study results. "Republicans tended to have, let's say, better hair, Mitt Romney hair, where democrats tended not to have that classic haircut or hairstyle."
Lewis went on to say, "We could make the case that John Edwards kind of looks more like a Republican, and so part of his disadvantage may have been that he didn't really fit what Democratic primary voters really are drawn to in terms of these appearance traits."
He cautions, however, that appearance is not the end-all and be-all of political campaigns.
"I don't want to overestimate the effects of the appearance variables," Lewis said. "If we just look at the way these candidates appear, you might predict that [Mitt] Romney would have an initial advantage," Lewis told LiveScience.
But Romney, at least after the Florida primaries, is behind McCain. Although Lewis didn't study the impact of apparent age, he says, "Clearly, having some gray at the temples probably helps, gives some credibility."
If McCain were to take the Republican bid and Obama the Democrat, Lewis said he would be interested to see how age figures in. "It's an interesting thing to see how that plays out, youth and vitality versus experience but also age creeping in," he said.
A tip for Romney's image: eye contact, according to image consultant Evangelia Souris, founder and president of Optimum International Center for Image Management in Boston.
"Mitt Romney has been criticized because he's really aloof," Souris said. "For him, what I would say is when he talks to people he needs to talk to them and not down to them. He very rarely establishes eye contact when he's one-on-one."
When Souris works with political clients, even the subtlest detail can make a difference. "It could be anything from the bare essentials, the hairstyle, the clothes or the color of the suit, to the mannerisms they use when they're making a speech, their tone, their eye contact," she said.
Appearance isn't everything. Lewis and his colleague found that how much money was spent on advertising and the use of negative ads also affected election outcomes.
"If you actually look at spending by candidates versus the appearance effect, spending effects are much greater," Lewis said. "Money talks much more than appearance. So appearance helps but it doesn't explain the whole story."
Whereas the use of negative ads by candidates worked against incumbents, challengers tended to benefit from mudslinging.
The researchers speculate the incumbent, or the iconic brand, is already well-known and so would do well to emphasize their established positive attributes. The challenger, however, is unfamiliar and has the job of changing consumers' views of the market leader—the opponent.
In this respect, Clinton would be considered an incumbent. "Hillary has been the frontrunner for so long, we can almost think of her as having a lot of the advantages and problems that incumbents would have. She started out with massive awareness compared to Obama," Lewis said.
Clinton and Obama could be facing off on their level of likeability.
"If you think about how the Democratic race has unfolded, I think likeability has turned into a major issue, where I think the common thinking is that Hillary Clinton kind of struggles in terms of making connections," Lewis said. "Whereas Barack Obama tends to be more fluid and much more likeable to folks."
"So despite the enormous advantages that Hillary had coming into this, in terms of fundraising, in terms of awareness, this likeability deficit does explain probably how well Obama is doing, at least partially," Lewis said.
Keating concurs, suggesting that gender stereotypes also come into play for Clinton. Voters are "desperately searching for warmth in the face and appearance of Hillary Clinton, because our stereotype of women is that they are warm and they care about people and they are approachable," Keating said. "Here we have this woman who takes center stage and acts like a leader, which really violates all the stereotypes we have for women."
She added that Sen. Clinton is between a rock and a hard place.
"How can she appear both competent and likeable at the same time when one or the other of those ways violates a stereotype?" Keating asks. "And that in a nutshell has been Hillary's problem."
The image factor becomes a large part of the campaigning strategy.
"They definitely all have somebody who is coaching them and advising them, whether it's how they carry their posture or their hand movements," image consultant Souris said. "[Image] does have a lot of play into how people connect with them. When you first meet someone it's all about first impression."
- Scientists Say Bush Stifles Science and Lets Global Leadership Slip
- Quiz: The State of the United States
- Top 10 Ailing Presidents
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.