2012 GOP Favorites: Too Wonky to Win?

April 10th, 2011 at 6:53 pm | 45 Comments |

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In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Chait argues that the GOP has a “Dukakis problem”: none of the candidates being drafted to run looks very presidential.  But will voters really dismiss a candidate because they don’t like their look?

Chait writes:

Republicans have generally understood that an agenda tilted toward the desires of the powerful requires a skilled frontman who can pitch Middle America. Favorite character types include jocks, movie stars, folksy Texans and war heroes…  [But the frontrunners for the 2012 Republican nomination] make Michael Dukakis look like John F. Kennedy. They are qualified enough to serve as president, but wildly unqualified to run for president… [Mitch] Daniels’s drawbacks begin — but by no means end — with his lack of height, hair and charisma… [Jeb Bush] suffers from an inherent branding challenge [because of his last name]… [Chris] Christie… doesn’t cut a trim figure and who specializes in verbally abusing his constituents… A former tobacco lobbyist and occasional pre-civil-rights-era nostalgic, [Haley] Barbour is the comic embodiment of his party’s most negative stereotypes. A Barbour nomination would be the rough equivalent of the Democrats’ nominating Howard Dean, if Dean also happened to be a draft-dodging transsexual owner of a vegan food co-op.

Chait continues:

The impulse to envision one of these figures as a frontman represents a category error. These are the kind of people you want advising the president behind the scenes; these are not the people you put in front of the camera. The presidential candidate is the star of a television show about a tall, attractive person who can be seen donning hard hats, nodding at the advice of military commanders and gazing off into the future.

Geddit? Mike Dukakis was short, ethnic-looking, and didn’t look good in a tank. (He did his military service in peacetime.) And did I mention that his middle name was Stanley? Who would vote for such a jerk?

All I can say is that Dukakis performed about as well in 1988 as would be predicted from the economy at the time. Here’s a graph based on Doug Hibbs’s model:


Sorry, but I don’t think the Democrats would’ve won the 1988 presidential election even if they’d had Burt Reynolds at the top of the ticket. And, remember, George H. W. Bush was widely considered to be a wimp and a poser until he up and won the election. Conversely, had Dukakis won (which he probably would’ve, had the economy been slumping that year), I think we’d be hearing about how he was a savvy low-key cool dude.

Let me go on a bit more about the 1988 election. Suppose it’s true, as Chait believes, that Americans want their Presidents to look like Clint Eastwood rather than Danny DeVito. How come Dukakis was way ahead in the polls at the start of the general election campaign? The starting point is when people have the least information, when they’re the most superficial. It was by the end of the campaign, at which point voters focused more on party and ideology (see this article) and learned more about the candidates’ ideologies and issue positions, that they decided to go for the preppie from Connecticut over the wimp from Massachusetts.

To political scientists, this perspective — that presidential elections turn on issues and the economy, not on charisma or superficial perceptions of the candidates — is not new. Steven Rosenstone made the argument in his classic 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections. And the political-science view of presidential campaigns has been gaining ground among knowledgeable reporters as well. Unfortunately it hasn’t made its way to the New York Times Magazine yet, but give it time.

My goal is not to mock.  Chait is making an understandable error. He’s close to the action and focuses on the details of the candidates. And candidate effects are complicated. His article concludes:

In an old Simpsons episode, the unlikable brainiac Artie Ziff is elected prom king. “Instead of voting for some athletic hero or a pretty boy, you have elected me, your intellectual superior, as your king,” he says. “Good for you!” It’s funny because it hardly ever happens in real life.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), politics is not like the school prom. In the general election for president, the candidates are well-financed, are clearly distinguishable in ideology, and there are only two of them–thus none of the instability, associated with strategic voting, that we see in the primaries.

I don’t know what’s gonna happen in 2012, but political science research suggests that the Republicans could nominate a goofy short guy with glasses, or a rude fat guy, or whatever, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. (Haley Barbour is a different story: a conservative from Mississippi could be far enough from the national mainstream to get hurt on ideology. But even then we’re talking a percentage point or two.)

It really irritates me when pundits trivialize politics and insult the voters. I’m sure Chait means well and, yes, I know that most voters don’t know anything about the federal budget, probably half of them can’t find Miami on a map, etc. But there’s no evidence that people vote based on candidates’ looks. Certainly not in presidential elections where the stakes are high and their party identification is clear.

If you want to rail at the mistakes voters make and the problems with our political system . . . fine, go for it! There’s a lot to complain about. But please don’t slam the voters for something they don’t do.

Here’s a rule of thumb. When thinking about “the voters,” think a bit about yourself. Do you vote based on a candidate’s looks? No. So why are you so sure that the ordinary undecided voter is doing so? Sure, many undecideds know less about politics than you do. But if they went out to vote, they might have some preferences. To think that they’re voting based on looks is just silly. And, more to the point, it’s not borne out by the data.

Check out Hibbs’s graph above. Chait also pulls out this line:

A series of experiments has shown that subjects, even young children, can reliably pick the winners of races based solely on candidate photos.

No! As I wrote a couple years ago about a study that claimed an impressive 70% accuracy in predicting winners based on their looks:

It’s a funny result: at first it seems impressive–70% accuracy!–but then again it’s not so impressive given that you can predict something on the order of 90% of races just based on incumbency and the partisan preferences of the voters in the states and districts. I can’t be sure what’s happening here, but one possibility is that the more serious candidates (the ones we know are going to win anyway) are more attractive.

I’m not saying that the study that Jonathan Chait is citing is wrong, exactly, but I don’t think it provides evidence that Mitch Daniels would be dead meat in the presidential election. What matters is the economy.

Here’s why this annoys me so much: There’s some political science research on the importance of the fundamentals in presidential elections. But that’s pretty obscure stuff. You can’t very well expect a political pundit to be reading back issues of the British Journal of Political Science (yep, that’s where our article appeared, even though it was all about the U.S. We first submitted it to the American Political Science Review but they rejected it. Too many graphs and not enough tables, I think.) So, sure, I can’t blame Chait for not being up on the research consensus. And, as I wrote above, I’m sure he means well. In this case he’s trying to give Republicans the advice to nominate a pretty-boy rather than someone serious. OK, fine. But making a mistake that simultaneously (1) insults the voters, (2) mocks those political insiders who favor substance over style, and (3) brings up the old politics-as-high-school analogy, but this time in all seriousness… well, that’s just annoying.

It’s snarkworld at its worst, and I’m sad to see it in my local paper. Especially when so much real politics is going on.

Recent Posts by Andrew Gelman

45 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    You don’t think Barbour and Christie inhabit certain stereotypical personas? This is a bit like saying Al Smith wasn’t a stereotype, or FDR for that matter.

  • Deep South Populist

    Other than Romney, no one in the GOP field looks like a president from the standpoint of physical appearance, demeanor, carriage and bearing.

    • Bunker555

      If prune face Reagan can make it to the Presidency, anyone can.

      • ottovbvs

        Reagan was a handsome guy…a bit of a doofus but undoubtedly handsome and with a lot of charisma.

  • Elia Isquire

    Well, there is some evidence that voters take physical appearance into account:


    In general, however, I think you make a good point. I think Chait was perhaps trying to comment more on how no top-tier GOPer (with the exception of Romney) seems interested in jumping into the 2012 race, but he got sidetracked with petty (although at times amusing; I’m always in favor of a “Simpsons” reference), superficial material.

  • Moderate

    Dr. Gelman,

    How do you explain the taller candidate winning ~80% of presidential elections if looks are irrelevant? That’d be one hell of a fluke!

  • TJ Parker

    The picture accompanying this on the home page is misleading. Barbour and Cristi look wonky?? Once upon a time the fat and gout-afflicted were the elites. Nowadays they’re the eaters of Cheetos and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. But wonky? The vulgarian Trump looks more wonky than these guys. These guys have a “put down that beer and turn off the TV” look.

    The GOP field for 2012 looks like a casting call for MTV’s “The Real World”, if the shared house were to be somewhere in historical Gettysburg. I think it just needs a jock and a bulimic.

    • think4yourself

      Okay, very funny. I can see the GOP Real World in DC cast now. Palin & Bachmann, Barbour, Daniels & Ron Paul. Or maybe they should call the show Big Brother.

      • TJ Parker

        Ha! Big Brother! I like that!

        A stoner might be better than a bulimic. Maybe Rand Paul or Huntsman for that? Rand Paul would also double as a Randroid. Paul Ryan could work in the latter role too. Ryan might be a good addition, since he’s probably the only Republican anyone might want to see shirtless.

        Cristi is [i]so[\i] New Jersey. Anyone wanna bet that he’s one of those big Jersey guys that wears a speedo to the beach?

  • politicalfan

    lol. TJ Parker-”Macaroni and Cheese.”

    I think they all look fine and American. They are attractive men, give them a break. I am not sure being shallow with a President is always best.

    • TJ Parker

      One correction: you’re not gonna get gout from Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Kraft Cheese & Macaroni. Gout requires protein and Kraft “cheese” doesn’t, I think, have much of that.

      “They are attractive men …”

      As a gay man, I must protest. Nothing stirring in my pants.

      Romney and Bachmann have something in that department, although with a kind of aging Ken and Barbie feel, and an overall Stepford-wives vibe. Bachmann should find a better doctor: her face is not aging nearly as fast as her neck.

  • armstp

    I am not sure these are the 2012 GOP favorites. They won’t win because they do not offer a better alternative to Obama.

  • Deep South Populist

    Unlike Christie and Barbour, Mitch Daniels is at least not a slob. But still, if any of them look “wonkish” it’s definitely Daniels. He looks like a librarian. No one is going to line up behind that man.


    Fair or not, aesthetics matter. The GOP power-brokers realize this, I’m sure.

    • sweatyb

      Aesthetics matter, in general, but the amount of money and power behind Presidential candidates can gloss over most (if not all) shortcomings. In the end, both candidates (as well as the VPs) go through the movie star treatment and the result is a wash.

      The Republicans can read the polls. The reason that Christie et. al. are not jumping into the race at this point is because the sitting President looks unbeatable. If Obama merely treads water until next November (and that looks like his strategy), they cannot win. Thus we see the bright shining Republican star that is Donald Trump(!!!) leading their presidential hopefuls. Because people with real political potential are strategic enough to pick battles they think they can win.

  • anniemargret

    It doesn’t matter a hang if they look ‘wonkish’ or not. There is only one thing Americans need to know about the Republican presidential wannabes….. are they “birthers?”

    So far, Trump and Palin are on board. Let’s hear it from their dear little lips. Are they in tune with the GOP birther movement or not?

    No shady answers….no equivocation. Just a straight down yes or no answer.

    Whoever answers YEA, gets booted out on his/her ears. Too much idiocy for the Oval Office. If they believe the ‘birther conspiracy’ then they shouldn’t be anywhere near the nuclear codes or waging wars.

    So we can eliminate Trump-Birther and Palin-Birther. Next?!

    • anniemargret

      Donald Trump is a self-serving, egotistical man who isn’t deserving of being the Leader of the Free World. His ‘birther’ garbage just made him a bottom feeder. Outside of the inner Republican circles, he’s become a laughingstock.

  • indy

    Cristie wonky-looking? Really? If by wonky you mean looking like you could be Paul Sorvino’s partner in a goodfellas type movie then, yeah, I suppose.

  • Still Looking « 3xidol.com

    [...] 2012 GOP Favorites: Too Wonky-Looking to Win? | FrumForum [...]

  • politicalfan

    Call Scott Brown and Paul Ryan. There is your ticket!

    I think Romney/Rubio or Ryan might be reality?

    • TJ Parker

      Careful what you wish for. Ryan has a huge albatross hanging from his neck at this moment. I don’t think anyone is thinking about touching that rotting fowl in the near term; tho perhaps the fire will burn out before the 2012 campaign starts up.

      Ugh. I mixed my metaphors. Appy polly loggies.

    • Carney

      With the same slick dark hair, Ryan looks like he could be the freakishly handsome Romney’s son or kid brother.

      But Ryan has two major problems as a Romney running mate:

      1. You usually pick a running mate to help you where you’re weak. Ryan’s strengths are in budgetary and financial issues. Romney presumably already has that covered.

      2. Ryan is a Roman Catholic. A ticket that is not only evangelical-free but completely Protestant-free will be seen by the base as an almost deliberate eye-thumb, depressing turnout, volunteer efforts, small dollar contributions, and positive buzz. Romney MUST pick a Protestant, preferably an evangelical, as his veep. I think Thune fits the bill nicely.

  • dmnolan

    But ask yourself this: Which of these three is least likely to find himself photographed passed out on a couch with dried Spaghettios stuck to his mouth?

  • StarSpangledSpanner

    Christie, Far too fat, in fact obese. No chance America will elect him unless he looses 300 lbs.

    Barber, Too fat and has a southern accent, also has far too much baggage, zero chance.

    Daniels, Has a comb over, any man not confident enough to allow his bald head to show and insecure enough to have a pathetic comb over is never going to be President.

    • TJ Parker

      To be fair, I’m not sure what Daniels has is what one would call a comb-over.

      “Daniels, Has a comb over, and man not confident enough to allow his bald head to show and insecure enough to have a pathetic comb over is never going to be President.”

      See, I think Donald Trump contradicts part of that statement. Its likely Trump could never be President, but not, I think, because he lacks confidence. I mean, c’mon, Trump has so much confidence you just wish someone would remind him to put his testicles back in his pants a bit more often. And he had enuf confidence to sniff Giuliani-in-drag on camera.

      • StarSpangledSpanner

        Sure looks like he is taking vestigege of hair from the far back and combing it over to the far side to me.

        Trump is a special case, his hairstyle is as big as his personality, he can get away with it as long as he never allows himself to be photographed like this.

        Or this.

  • nwahs

    I thought Obama cleared up all that looks stuff. Or perhaps its more intelligent to have a bad opinion of someone because they are fat?

    • StarSpangledSpanner

      Looks pretty scrummy to me! I would.

      • TJ Parker

        Boyish but athletic! This is a good thing.

        Rule of thumb: if your waist is bigger than your chest, you’ve got trouble.

        Nota bene: this rule does not apply if you have manboobs.

  • ottovbvs

    Best looking presidents since 1900.

    Bush jr

    Winner: Kennedy Runner up: FDR.

  • Carney

    Romney doesn’t quite have that Western, outdoor-weathered, grandfatherly Norman Rockwell perfection that Reagan had, but he is still almost ridiculously handsome and presidential.

    If the premise of this column is true, he’ll clean the Perot-eared, distractingly large mole-sporting Democratic nominee’s clock.

    • StarSpangledSpanner

      Romney has the character of a robotic good-hair Republican. No real charisma just fake smiles and no connection to ordinary people. I guess it’s being brought up as an elite that does it.

      That plus his record of asset stripping American companies and shipping the jobs abroad is a Presidential killer.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    Do you vote based on a candidate’s looks?

    Of course I do. Not so much looks but how they present themselves with their looks. Obama beat Hillary because of his presentation.

    I think the author is whistling past the graveyard on this. Daniels looks like a little old woman, Mr. Burns is more verile.

    Rubio, otoh, is telegenic, charismatic. I am not saying it means he will win, but he has a shot. Daniels doesn’t.
    When Jindal gave his rebuttal to Obama’s sotu everyone laughed and said he was like Kenneth from 30 Rock. It is absolute horseshit to say this doesn’t matter.

    • Carney

      I predict Rubio will suffer significant hair loss in the next several years, and age poorly, much like Prince William already has.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    carney, that is cold. Yeah, William was such a cute kid and someone really hit him with the ugly stick (compared to how cute he was at least)

    Obama has far, far, far superior presentation skills compared to Romney. Look at his speech after the Giffords shooting, even Republicans gave him his due on that. Romney has the same flaw that Dewey had, they both look like the plastic figures you put on top of a wedding cake.

    Need I remind you that that one statement, as much as anything, did Dewey in? Romney looks fake, acts fake, talks fake. Outside of his wanting to be President I have no idea what Romney wants…and certainly not for the country.

    • Carney

      I can see how Romney could be called plastic or a Ken doll, but that implies a vacuity that nobody really believes Romney has. He’s well known to be highly intelligent and a capable manager.

      I think the key word that harmed Dewey was “little”, and the key feature that sealed his resemblance was the pencil mustache. Neither really applies in Romney’s case.

      Obama has already been criticized for relying on his TelePrompTer, and not just by the right but by late-night comedians etc., suggesting this narrative has broken through and settled into mainstream consciousness.

      I do think that class-warfare themes could work against Romney, providing an excuse for disliking him to people already jealous of his charmed life (looks, brains, success). Accusations of “fakery” can also work and have already drawn blood.

      Whether they’re substantively fair, of course is an entirely different issue (Reagan and Bush Sr. both switched on abortion).

  • ottovbvs

    [i]Accusations of “fakery” can also work and have already drawn blood….
    suggesting this narrative has broken through and settled into mainstream consciousness.[/i]

    Yes you could say Mitt is widely perceived as king of the flip floppers…not least by Republicans. You can make an argument for him being the best of a bad bunch but even then it’s doubtful he’ll even win the nomination given the reaction against both his flip flopping and his cult membership by Republican fundamentalists ( in all meanings of the term).

  • ram6968

    you gotta love the wide spread use of videotape…..go ahead, say something, I dare ya

    • ottovbvs

      go ahead, say something, I dare ya

      Well you’d think it would keep them honest but they still do it. Look at Newt with his on again off again bs over Libya. And of course the classic of Macacca. Romney is totally screwed over Romneycare because there’s masses of stuff around praising it the skies, and it deserved it. If he had any sense he’d just embrace it and go for broke as being the responsible Republican. All the rest of em are weenies or nuts so he’s going to stand out a mile.

      The other thing about video and recording devices is size. Republicans love closed meetings because then they can tell all the faithful they’re going deport all the mexies and ragheads, and close the EPA and dept of ed, but then say something else at the tv debate. Now you only need one interloper or angry stagehand whose not drunk the koolaid and you could be screwed.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    “While Obama was touring the world apologizing for our nation” No, he went around apologizing to the world for Bush. Believe you me as someone who travels a lot I sure as hell apologized for Bush plenty of times. I truly am sorry he was ever President.

  • ottovbvs

    Loose lips sink ships?

  • Dan L

    It really irritates me when pundits trivialize politics and insult the voters.
    Ok, so you say this two paragraphs after you point out that voting pretty much follows exactly what happens in the short term in the economy. That’s equally as insulting to voters as saying they vote based on looks. Neither of those things are a good content based reason to vote for a candidate.

    Here’s a rule of thumb. When thinking about “the voters,” think a bit about yourself. Do you vote based on a candidate’s looks? No. So why are you so sure that the ordinary undecided voter is doing so?

    I’m certain looks matters in my voting, though not consciously. I think it may be less for me as I’m aware of this human nature, but even that I’m unsure of. It’s very much like dating in this way. No one ever lists looks as their top criteria for dating, and yet revealed preferences shows it matters a whole lot.