To date, I haven’t made a formal forecast of the presidential election (though I will below). But I want to answer the question in the title of this post first, because it’s one that isn’t asked (or answered) enough.
In 2009, Arlen Specter left his political party and made headlines, enemies, and a few friends in the process. He serves as a cautionary tale to those thinking about jumping ship; Specter did not make it past his primary. Our research (gated; earlier ungated version) helps to illuminate why the election after a switch is an uphill battle.
A new survey and report from the Public Religion and Research Institute—entitled “Beyond God and Guns”—is a valuable corrective to so many stereotypes of the white working class. Particularly noteworthy in this report are the large and important differences within the white working class—by age, region, gender, and party, to name a few. For example, consider this:
Harvard University political science Ryan Enos reports some important findings:
Mitt Romney is better looking than almost everyone reading this blog. Back in 2008, I wrote about how Sarah Palin’s looks put her in the 95th percentile of politicians. Romney has even Palin beat—he scores above the 99th percentile.
These results come from a study with my colleagues Matthew Atkinson and Seth Hill, in which we developed a method for obtaining the ratings of the facial competence of governor and Senate candidates from 1994 to 2006 by showing the images of these candidates to undergraduate students for 1 second, as pioneered by Alex Todorov. In 2007, when we collected this data, we removed highly-recognizable candidates so that opinions about the candidates, other than their appearance, would not affect the ratings. However, as with Palin, we are fortunate that Romney was a relative unknown at the time (at least to the undergraduates in California that we used), so we obtained a rating of his face.
And what a face it is! We gathered the ratings of 728 candidates for Senate and Governors’ seats and Romney outscored all but four of them. The only persons to win election that beat him are Russ Feingold (the best looking Democrat) and John Thune (the best looking overall). Romney also appears to far outdo Paul Ryan, who came in in the 67th percentile of the 2004 House candidates (although the photos did not include abs). (Also, that study only included white male candidates and the House was not measured on a common scale with Senators and Governors, but I’d feel pretty confident saying the 67th percentile of the House puts you well behind Romney).
We don’t have a rating of Obama because we deemed him too well-known, even in 2007, because his Senate race had attracted a lot of attention and there was already an excitement building around a possible White House bid. However, we do have a score for Biden—and Romney has him beat badly. Biden only comes in the 62nd percentile of Senate and governor candidates.
So, if the election were decided on looks, it would be no contest. Fortunately for Obama and Biden, the election is not decided by looks. As we point out in our paper associated with the study, most of the correlation between candidate appearance and election outcomes is probably spurious. Very few voters are willing to cast their ballot for a candidate based on looks – we estimate that if a candidate moves from the 25th to the 75th percentile in attractiveness, this is likely to gain that candidate about 3.5 percentage points in vote among independent voters, which was not enough to decide the winner of even a single Senate race out of 99 that we examined. Rather than good looks directly affecting voters’ decisions, it is likely that good looking people like Romney have a lot of success in life, obtain significant human capital—education, career success, education—and because of all they have to lose, they are strategic about which races they enter.
In a certain respect, Romney’s career both fits and is counter to this explanation, because he ran for Senate in 1994, against Ted Kennedy when he did not have a good chance of winning, but he did not run for Governor until 2002 where he used his good looks and the considerable capital he had earned from the Salt Lake City Olympics to run in a seat with no incumbent. Of course, Romney may not have been able to be as strategic about when to run for President – and unfortunately for him, most voters seem to have made up their mind long ago—nevertheless, if a candidate’s appearance every can make a difference, it should make a difference for Mitt Romney and his face in the 99th percentile.
In advance of the Dem convention next week, I’m working on a piece about the 2016 presidential candidate “bench,” for lack of a better term. It seems that plenty of Republicans are mentioned as potential candidates in 4 years: Christie, Daniels, Rubio, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush… even Nikki Haley and Rand Paul. It seems far fewer Democrats are on the bench… there’s always Hillary, and some talk about Martin O’Malley and Andrew Cuomo, but I don’t hear too many more.