With piercing blue eyes, 6-foot-plus stature, and a workout routine fit for the Marines, Paul Ryan is undeniably an attractive vice-presidential candidate. But despite how easy he is on the eyes, his looks may only get him so far with voters.
“He has two things going for him. One he is young, 20 years younger than the GOP’s presidential nominee, so that automatically puts him in the youth factor…and now we know from the media that he has 7 percent body fat,” says media strategist Joel Silberman.
Although a candidate’s physique is not the most professional measurement for voters deciding who to support, many people are influenced by it. Studies show that inherently attractive people are not only 36 percent more likely to get called back for a job, but also that good-looking political candidates are considered more memorable and trustworthy.
“It matters because we are a cosmetic society,” says Silberman. “We think people are attractive, we want to be with the cool kids, and cool kids are usually the ones that are good-looking. So we tend to judge things that way and for a politician, it’s a very strong attribute.”
The advantage is called the “beauty premium,” and it helps such candidates connect with voters more so than those not as aesthetically blessed.
“We project onto good-looking people all characteristics that we believe are correlated to their success in office. And we like looking at them,” says Daniel Hamermesh, economics professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of the book Beauty Pays.
Although Mitt Romney and President Obama are both decent-looking guys, Hamermesh says their faces are familiar to the public, and the level of voter trust has already been established. Ryan, on the other hand, was relatively unknown just a month ago, and thus his image plays a larger factor in how voters will read him.
Nino Saviano, a Republican strategist, says it takes less than the blink of an eye for people to decide how they feel about a candidate.
“In a growing body of literature and political psychology, they have determined that it only takes 100 milliseconds for voters to make up their mind about a candidate just by looking at his or her face,” he says.
How voters feel about Ryan’s looks may not stop at a crush and a desire to see him shirtless (a popular Google search term). But that hardly means the Romney-Ryan ticket is a shoo-in. Some analysts say the population’s interest in the physique of a candidate is fleeting, and attractiveness mostly matters to uninformed or undecided voters.
“People in the middle tend to vote a lot more on instinct, and they tend to be less-informed voters and less tied to ideologies,” says Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist at Democracy Partners. “They are going to go with their gut on which candidate they trust more and which one they like more.”
At the same time, couch potatoes and TV enthusiasts are the most likely to be swayed by a candidate’s “hotness factor.”
A 2010 MIT study found that for every 10 advantage points a candidate was given when rated by voters for his or her looks, there was a 5 percent increase in support for that candidate from uninformed voters who said they watched a lot of TV. The concept dates back to the first televised presidential debate in 1960, when those who watched on TV (as opposed to listening on radio) overwhelmingly named John Kennedy the winner over Richard Nixon.
But the effects are different for more politically aware voters who get their information through multiple venues. For them, the psychological effects of a candidate’s appearance will fade, as looks do, with time.
“My view of Ryan,” Lux says, “is that when people hear more about him, such as the details of his policy and vision for America, their discomfort on his ideas is going to weigh a lot more than how he looks.”
In the end, says Hamermesh, most voters know not to base their decision purely on appearance.
“The more informed you are, the more likely other factors are going to influence how you feel about a candidate,” he says. “It’s exactly what happened to Sarah Palin. She was totally unknown and she made gaffe after gaffe, and then her looks didn’t matter anymore. The office is just too important.”