GOP voters more likely to choose candidates who ‘look’ conservative

GOP voters more likely to choose candidates who ‘look’ conservative
© iStock

As Democrats look for Republican voters to cross party lines and create a “blue wave” in the midterm election, they may find the most success with candidates who look the part of a conservative, even if that outward appearance does not match the person’s ideology. 

Recent research I coauthored with Dustin Tingley of Harvard and Alexander Todorov of Princeton reveals that bias based on facial features exists even when other notable factors – gender, ethnicity, and age — are factored in.

ADVERTISEMENT

A growing body of evidence points to facial features as a key influencer over voting preferences. For example, voters tend to lean toward candidates who appear competent. And facial features also impact a person’s chances of winning a CEO job or of being convicted of a crime. From small children to senior citizens, this type of “face-ism” likely exists in a wide swath of the population, and impacts many sectors in everyday life.

But what’s markedly different in this most recent study is that the bias exists only in conservative voters. Democratic voters are no more or less likely to choose a candidate based on whether that person has a liberal looking face.

Our study compared the voting preferences of Republicans and Democrats in actual elections based on exit poll data. We examined how well political facial stereotypes — the tendency to associate certain facial morphologies with a left or right leaning ideology — could predict those voting preferences. These stereotypes were measured using headshots of the Democrat and Republican candidates in past U.S. gubernatorial and Senate elections. Critically, these headshots were standardized to eliminate the potential influence of other visual cues: we converted them all to black-and-white images, put them on uniform gray backgrounds, and edited them to remove cues such as U.S. flag pins. 

We asked study participants to identify the Republican or Democrat in each election using only these photos and excluded responses where the participant actually recognized the candidate.

The proportion of participants who guessed, correctly or incorrectly, that a candidate is Republican is how we measured how stereotypically “Republican-looking” that candidate’s face is, and the same is true for Democrats. Notably, although we don’t know exactly what features make a face look liberal or conservative, we do know that people tend to agree on which candidates look stereotypically like Republicans or Democrats. 

When we correlated these political facial stereotypes with exit poll data, the results were striking: Republicans tended to vote for the candidate who “looked” more conservative — even when that person was actually a Democrat, and regardless of whether the state in which the candidates were running generally skewed Republican or Democrat. Yet the same trend did not occur with Democrats; they did not appear to vote based on whether the candidate looked conservative or liberal. 

Furthermore, political facial stereotyping predicted voting above other criteria, including how attractive, honest, or dependable candidates’ faces appeared to a separate panel of participants.

These results were surprising given that voters know a candidate’s actual political affiliation when they vote, since the parties are printed on the ballot. Theoretically, this knowledge should eliminate the bias of facial stereotypes. Yet our findings show that a deceptively Republican-looking face may help Democrats “steal” Republican votes without damaging support among left-leaning voters.

And since the opposite is not true, Republicans only stand to lose if they happen to nominate candidates with stereotypically liberal faces, since that’s unlikely to siphon votes from Democrats and might serve as a turn-off to conservatives.

None of this is to say that Republican voters are generally more inclined to base their votes on superficial reasons. Indeed, our other research has shown that Democrats and Republicans alike tend to vote for politicians with competent looking faces, and that Democrats — but not Republicans — are less likely to elect candidates who look like stereotypical politicians. Suffice to say we do not yet know why looking conservative makes a candidate more attractive to conservative voters, but it is a challenging question for future research. Another interesting question is whether, and how, political facial stereotypes bias voters in other countries and political systems.

Christopher Y. Olivola is an assistant professor of marketing Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.