State of research

The state of research on the impact of politicians' physical attractiveness is limited. This is particularly the case if one is interested in its effects on real election results. The first, basic analysis on this subject was published in 1974 under the title 'Voters vote beautiful' (Efran and Patterson 1974). In this treatise the authors were able to show that, at the Canadian parliamentary election 1972, the vote share of the 79 candidates in the 21 constituencies in the Toronto region was clearly influenced by the candidates' physical attractiveness: attractive candidates thus received a vote share that was on average 21 % points higher than that of unattractive candidates (Efran and Patterson 1974, p. 354). The problem with this work, however, is that the candidates of major parties were much more attractive than those of minor parties.

“Since many of the candidates in the unattractive group were members of minor parties it is difficult to say, whether this group of candidates lost votes because of their party affiliation or their appearance, or because of both. Unfortunately, it was not possible to analyse meaningfully the effect of appearance with respect to the major party candidates alone because the variability of both appearance and obtained vote is greatly reduced when candidates are excluded on the basis of party affiliation.” (Efran and Patterson 1974, p. 354)

Despite this significant inadequacy of the study by Efran and Patterson the research questions they raised were not followed up for a considerable time. In the meantime, several studies appeared that tackle the impact of politicians' physical attractiveness by means of experiments and surveys (e.g., Budesheim and DePaola 1994; Klein and Ohr 2000; Klein and Rosar 2007; Rosar and Ohr 2005; Sigelman et al. 1986, 1987). Yet none of these studies is related in any way to the actual results of real elections. This does not apply to the seminal paper by Todorov et al., which investigated the inferences of competence based on portrait photographs (Todorov et al. 2005). Todorov et al. were able to show that at the American Senate elections of 2000, 2002 and 2004 there was a 71.6 % probability of correctly predicting the winner in each state based on these inferences of competence. In the elections for the House of Representatives in 2002 and 2004 this figure was still 66.8 %. However, the authors claimed that they 'ruled out the possibility that the age, attractiveness, and/or familiarity with the faces of the candidates could account for the relationship between inferences of competence and election outcomes' (Todorov et al. 2005, p. 1625). In a commentary on this study Zebrowitz and Montepare (2005) pointed out that the decisive variable behind the inferences of competence could be the 'mature-' or 'babyfacedness' of the candidates (see also Poutvaara et al. 2009). Yet from the point of view of sociopsychological attractiveness research, these are classic features of male attractiveness/unattractiveness (Olivola and Todorov 2010).

During the last few years, some more papers about the influence of politicians' physical attractiveness on real-life election results were published. These papers deal with open lists in proportional representation electoral systems (Berggren et al. 2010; Lutz 2010), presidential elections (Lawson et al. 2010; Rosar et al. 2012), preferential voting systems (Banducci et al. 2008; Leigh and Susilo 2009) and multi-member plurality systems (Banducci et al. 2008). These studies show significant effects of the attractiveness of the candidates on their election results.

The authors of the present paper have discussed the influence of the attractiveness of candidates in single-member constituencies on their actual electoral success in a number of works. They were able to demonstrate that, for the German federal election 2002, the attractiveness of constituency candidates from the two main parties (Social Democratic Party [1] and Conservative Party2) exerted an influence on their share of candidate votes (Klein and Rosar 2005). Furthermore, a later analysis of the German federal election 2005 showed that such an influence existed also for the share of party votes obtained in the constituency. Moreover, such influences could also be proven for the candidates of the three smaller parties—Liberal Party3, Green Party4 and Socialist Party5 (Klein and Rosar 2008). Finally, an investigation of the North Rhine-Westphalia state election in Germany in 2005 was also able to show that the effects of constituency candidates' attractiveness on the election result can be proved even if the electoral system does not provide for separate candidate and party votes (Rosar et al. 2008). A recent study arrived at similar findings for the Australian parliamentary elections in 2004 (King and Leigh 2007).

As a desideratum of previous research it must, however, be recognized that the available works are almost exclusively concerned with single-member constituencies in parliamentary elections, presidential elections and open lists in proportional representation systems. The question was therefore raised whether comparable mechanisms also existed in relation to the front-runners in large multi-member constituencies (Rosar and Klein 2013). This question will be addressed in the present paper using the example of the European election 2004. Special attention is paid to a possible context dependence of the effect of candidates' attractiveness.

  • [1] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD).
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