Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates’ Appearance

Authors


  • Gabriel S. Lenz is Associate Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, E53-463, Cambridge, MA 02139 (glenz@mit.edu). Chappell Lawson is Associate Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, E53-439, Cambridge, MA 02139 (clawson@mit.edu).

  • We thank Mike Myers, Monica Kahn, and Peter Krzywicki for research assistance. We are also grateful to Steve Ansolabehere, Adam Berinsky, Larry Bartels, Andrea Campbell, Antony Fowler, Eitan Hersh, Seth Hill, Orit Kedar, Krista Loose, Tali Mendelberg, Jas Sekhon, Erik Snowberg, Jim Snyder, Byung Kwon Song, Alex Todorov, Chris Wendt, John Zaller, and Adam Ziegfeld for helpful suggestions and to Alex Todorov, Jim Snyder, and Seth Hill for generously sharing data.

Abstract

As long as there has been democratic government, skeptics have worried that citizens would base their choices and their votes on superficial considerations. A series of recent studies seems to validate these fears, suggesting that candidates who merely look more capable or attractive perform better in elections. In this article, we examine the underlying process behind the appearance effect. Specifically, we test whether the effect of appearance is more pronounced among those who know little about politics but are exposed to visual images of candidates. To do so, we combine appearance-based assessments of U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates with individual-level survey data measuring vote intent, political knowledge, and television exposure. Confirming long-standing concerns about image and television, we find that appealing-looking politicians benefit disproportionately from television exposure, primarily among less knowledgeable individuals.

Ancillary