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Why Mitt Romney's a winner in our modern beautocracy

Democrats would have nothing to worry about. In fact, if he were of below-average height and didn't have such nice, dyed-black hair, it's highly unlikely he would ever have made it so far in the U.S. presidential race, no matter how much he inched toward the centre. William McKinley was the last president to be elected who was shorter than the average American man. And that was back in 1894. Like it or not, the modern world is a beautocracy.

Matinee Mitt is where he is because he won the face stakes against contenders such as Newt Gingrich. Quite apart from Gingrich's propensity for affairs and broken marriages, he is not pleasant to look at. So forget the gender gap for a moment: It's the beauty gap that governs who becomes winners and losers, not to mention who earns more and has a better chance of getting a more favourable mortgage. Lookism is the new sexism. Next thing you know, somebody will be arguing for government-subsidized plastic surgery to level the playing field. As it is, lawyers in the U.S. have launched court actions arguing that unattractive people deserve legal protection.

And it's not just intuition that might lead you to think good-looking people are more successful. Since the game-changing 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy (then a little-known Irish-American senator) and Richard Nixon (the incumbent vice-president), the issue of style and looks in politics has become an academic research area as serious as nuclear fusion. Remember: People who heard the debate on radio thought that Nixon had won.

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Unpopular as it may be to admit – who likes to think of themselves as superficial? – perceptions about candidates are governed by stereotypes that we have subconsciously absorbed. "We know from many studies in social psychology that physical attractiveness is a good thing because it conveys a lot of positive information," Alice Eagly, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, says in a phone interview. "When you see people who are considered attractive, they're seen, in general, as more socially competent, more well-adjusted, powerful and smarter. All the academic work on physical attractiveness is called the what-is-beautiful-is-good stereotype."

That beauty premium has been studied at length by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas and the author of the book Beauty Pays. He found that, in the U.S., better-looking men earned four per cent more than average-looking men of similar education and experience. Less attractive men earn 13 per cent less. In current salary terms, that means that a man with above-average looks can expect to earn $230,000 more over his career than his less attractive peers.

Even more upsetting (if you're the sort to believe that the smartest, kindest person should win), an attractive face is all you need to convince people you're competent as a political candidate, which is one of the most important determinants. That was the finding of a 2005 study in which researchers asked people to glance at a series of two black-and-white head shots of competing candidates running in Senate and House of Representatives races in the previous four years. Participants didn't have any prior knowledge of the candidates or who won the races. In 72 per cent of the Senate races and 67 per cent of the House races, the candidate that participants considered the more competent based on looks alone had actually won. Never mind ideas: With reasonable accuracy, election results can be predicted just by looking at a face.

Which brings me to Fifty Shades of Romney – and I'm not talking about his flip-floppy, grey areas on policy. In September of this year, bloggers across America took to the keyboards to discuss his complexion more than his message after an appearance at a meet-the-candidate event held by the Spanish-language television channel Univision at the University of Miami. Was it orange spray tan? He looked suspiciously dark-skinned, leading many to suggest he had tinted his face to appeal more to the Latino voters. Someone even tracked down the makeup guy to investigate Tannergate. As it turns out, the former Massachusetts governor had been travelling in sunny states. At least that was the explanation.

A face communicates many things, including cultural and historical periods. "Romney and his political views might, to some people, be attractive because he conveys a simpler, more stable world, when white people and men were in charge of things," says Eagly. "And Obama is more modern, not just because he's younger, but he's of mixed race and the U.S. population now has a large proportion of minorities, so he conveys that new world in which white people are not in charge everywhere."

Such are the politics of appearance that some have analyzed the differences between liberal and conservative candidates and how their looks impact voters. "The only guys worrying about policies are all the wonks running around the press gallery in Ottawa," Darrell Bricker, chief executive officer for Ipsos Global Public Affairs, opines over the phone. "They think somehow that being the leader of a party is about passing an IQ test or passing your LSATs. It doesn't work like that. Particularly on the left, people who are able to inspire, to energize voters, are the ones who win. Why did [voters] love [Barack Obama]? They loved the audacity of change. That works on the left."

On the right, however, "they don't care as much about this stuff. They don't really like politicians – they just want them to be acceptable and capable of doing the job. So that's why Stephen Harper's dullness is actually a benefit, a stylistic advantage. People on the right don't want to be inspired."

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Whether or not that's true, I have to remind myself that, even though research shows we make inferences from nonverbal behaviour and the attractiveness of someone's face, there's no concrete evidence those traits we attribute to beauty are accurate.

Remember, for one, Ted Bundy, the handsome serial killer? And consider that Charles Darwin almost didn't get a chance to travel on his famous scientific voyage, the one that led to many of his observations about evolution, because the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, a fervent phrenologist, thought Darwin's blobby nose suggested a weak constitution for such an extended trip.

Darwin had to convince FitzRoy of his suitability by writing, "My nose has spoken falsely."

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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