Saturday, June 02, 2007

Look good, say little

This NBER research confirms what most have suspected. In politics (and most other fields), looks matter much more than message. Likeable candidates with a sunny disposition have an edge. Talk of substance and policy positions add very little. Here is the NBER reporter's summary.

TV Appearance and Electoral Success

Forget the campaigns. Disregard the position papers and attack
ads. One of the best ways to tell who's going to win an election is to see the
candidates on TV, watching them for 10 seconds and keeping the sound off. That's
how more than 260 Harvard undergraduates, watching gubernatorial candidates in
58 races, compiled a rather impressive record of forecasting elections. They
picked the winner an average 58 percent of the time, according to Thin-Slice
Forecasts of Gubernatorial Elections (NBER Working Paper No. 12660). The
students were more accurate than any economic measure that the paper's
co-authors, Daniel Benjamin and Jesse Shapiro, tested. They were far more
accurate than the Harvard students who actually heard what the candidates had to

If this gut-level, insta-pick method seems disturbing, take
heart. At least Americans aren't alone in skin-deep politics. A study of the
1996 presidential race in Romania found that people could predict the outcome of
the first round of voting based merely on photographs and video clips of the
candidates. A study last year of Finnish elections found that ratings of
candidates' physical attractiveness predicted their success better than ratings
of their competence.

Following these foreign and other similar U.S.-based studies,
the NBER paper offers several new insights. It quantifies how much of a role
personal appeal plays in relation to other economic and political factors. It
tries to single out the quality behind such appeal. It suggests, strikingly,
that theless one hears a candidate, the better one can assess his or her chances
of winning. That last finding "may help to explain why expert forecasters, who
are highly informed about and attentive to policy matters, are often found to
perform no better than chance in predicting elections," the authors

The thrust of the NBER research was to ensure that the
subjects knew as little as possible about the candidates they were seeing. None
of the 264 students in the study were shown videos of candidates from his or her
home state. Since virtually all of the students were from Harvard, all
Massachusetts races were eliminated as well. The authors dropped responses from
any student who recognized a particular candidate.To minimize any bias from
lighting or staging, the researchers used 10-second videos of opposing
candidates from the same televised debate. Sometimes these clips included full
sound; sometimes the sound was purposely muddled (so students could make out the
candidates' tone but not their words). Most of the videos were

The results were consistent. Students who saw silent videos
picked the right candidate 58 percent of the time, whereas those viewers who
heard full sound or muddled sound were only right 52 and 48 percent of the time,
respectively, no better than the results of random guessing. Moreover, the
predictions from the no-sound videos closely mirrored the results of the actual
elections. So, the larger the majority of students that a candidate "won," the
larger the share of voters heor she was likely to have won at the ballot
box.Their forecasts were far more accurate than elections based on various
economic measures of voter well-being, such as per capita income, unemployment,
or state fiscal health. Even when such state and local data was significantly
better or worse than national trends, the predictive power of economics was

But if it's not "the economy, stupid" -- if, indeed, Bill
Clinton was wrong about the key to a winning campaign message -- then what
winning quality were the Harvard students detecting when they picked winning
candidates?The authors looked at the influence of candidates' race, gender, and
height to see if students were swayed by these factors. Gender and race weren't
a factor, since students were just as accurate predicting races involving two
white males as they were in the races overall. Height played a small role but
was statistically insignificant. So were qualities such as likeability and
physically attractiveness. Candidates the students judged to be good leaders had
a slightly better chance of winning than those not rated as good leaders, but
the correlation was marginal. Finally, the researchers looked into whether a
candidate's confidence influenced students. But in the 22 races that were
considered close, where presumably the two candidates were equally confident
(and where there were more than 30 student raters, constituting a large sample),
the students' accuracy in picking winners was roughly on par with the overall

Thus, the research suggests that some factor beyond the
students' own preferences or the vagaries of a particular race -- the authors
call it candidate charisma or personal appeal -- is communicable, even during a
10-second silent video clip.Two political factors turned out to be more accurate
than the students' picks. One is incumbency, which accounted for about 23
percent of the voting outcome compared with about 20 percent for the student
predictions. Campaign spending was even more accurate, accounting for about33
percent of the outcome.

These findings come with their own chicken-and-egg complexity.
If good fundraising causes election success, then candidates' charisma plays a
smaller though still significant role in predicting their success. But if good
fund-raising is caused by other factors, as other researchers have found, then
charisma may play a larger role than this research suggests. The same dilemma
conundrum applies to incumbency. The best that can be said is that charisma and
ballot box success are related in ways that economic factors cannot come close
to matching.

-- Laurent Belsie