Sunday, November 4, 2012

How Do We Really Choose Our Presidents?
by David Gilfix

Everything you need to know about elections can be learned from the frumpy lady, Susan Boyle.  You remember her, right?  She appeared on the 2009 Britain’s Got Talent television show wearing clothes designed not to impress and a hairdo designed not to impress, and as Simon Cowell talked with her he was clearly not impressed.  The YouTube recording of the episode, which has been viewed almost 109 million times, shows audience members smiling, rolling their eyes, and shaking their heads.  Dismissive.  Unimpressed.
And then she sang. 
The audience melted in her arms.  And Simon Cowell became the bad guy.  How dare he make assumptions about her talent based on her looks? 
Today, sufficient information is available to indicate that the whole episode was a set-up.  Simon Cowell and the other two judges probably knew beforehand that the frumpy lady (and according to one source, more than 95 percent of the articles about Susan Boyle have used the same adjective) was a phenomenal singer.  By playing the bad guy with the prejudices, Cowell allowed the audience to experience the surprise of Boyle’s talent with impunity by pretending that it was Cowell ­– not they – who had prejudged.  
We would like to believe that we assess others objectively, and that even if prejudicial elements cloud our judgment, in the end we will overcome these shortcomings, just as Simon Cowell and the audience (and we!) overcame initial skepticism about Susan Boyle.  To misquote the adage, it ain’t over until the frumpy lady sings.  Right?
Not in presidential elections.  Unlike Britain’s Got Talent show (and much of the entertainment world), a statistical case could be made that the race is over long before the candidates sing.  In order to succeed, to misquote the Beatles, all you need is looks.
Here’s how we elect our presidents:
First, of course, we require the candidate to be male.   In our egalitarian 21st century society this might change, but for now it is still a statistical guarantee.  So fifty percent of our population is automatically eliminated.
Of the 50 percent remaining, the next factor to consider is weight.  There have only been five overweight or obese presidents: Taft, Cleveland, McKinley, Taylor, and Teddy Roosevelt (data taken from A History of Fat Presidents, Forbes Magazine).  Of these five, only Taft was elected after 1900.  President Clinton struggled with his weight, but in my opinion it would have been more accurate to call him “heavy set.”  (Incidentally, Clinton has recently adopted a vegan diet and eliminated all his weight problems).  

Anyway, out of the 28 elections since 1900, only President Taft could be considered overweight or obese, which means that in 96.43 percent of the elections a non-obese candidate was elected. 
This means that the 72 percent of American males who happen to be overweight or obese (according to The National Institution of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, NIDDK) have a tiny chance of ever becoming president of the United States. 
If we eliminate 96.43 percent of the 72 percent of males that are overweight or obese, equivalent to 69.12 percent, we are left with 31 percent of the male population or 15.5 percent of the entire population.  The talent pool is clearly shrinking!
The next factor to consider is skin pigmentation.  Of the 28 elections since 1900, only one was won by a non-Caucasian, President Obama.  Therefore, based only on the post 1900 election data, there is also an overwhelming 96.43 percent chance that a white candidate will be elected.  Of course, raw figures don’t tell the entire story.  Whereas only non-overweight/obese presidents have been elected after President Taft, we can’t infer a similar statistical trend with skin pigmentation since President Obama is African American.  As such, it is difficult to determine whether the last election was an aberration or a sign of changing trends from more non-white voters or shifts in social attitudes.   
But the frumpy lady still hasn’t sung.
What about height?
The average height of an American male is 5’9.2”, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.  For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to assume that the average is the same as the median. I realize that the real statisticians out there would probably want to tweak my number, but a quick glance at one on-line bell curve chart of heights-by-percentage did indicate that this assumption was not too unreasonable.   Since, by definition, half of the population is at or below the median height, one might presume that there would be an equal number of presidents above and below 5’9” in an unbiased environment.
Fat chance.  (Or perhaps we should we say, less than obese chance).
Since 1900, voters have not elected a single president who was below average height.  Therefore we can eliminate half of the remaining 31 percent of males or 15.5 percent of the entire population.  We’re left with a talent pool of 15.5 percent of all males, or 7.75 percent of the entire population.
And the frumpy lady still hasn’t sung.
In the 28 elections held since 1900, the candidates were of equal height twice; and of the remaining 26 elections, the shorter candidate won only 7 times.  This means that in 73 percent of the elections, the taller candidate has won.  
Therefore, even if you never read a single analysis or followed a single poll and simply placed your bet on the tallest candidate to be elected president, you would be right more often than many of the “experts.”
But the 73 percent figure might be misleading.  Of the seven elections in which the shorter candidate won, three were of unusual circumstances:
  •     In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Albert Gore.  However, Gore won the popular vote, so we could say that the majority of people did vote for the taller candidate.
  •     In 1976, Jimmy Carter, 5’9 ½” (average height) defeated a taller Gerald Ford.  But this was right after Watergate, and Ford was the only president, ever, for whom nobody voted.
  •    1972, Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern.  Nixon eventually left office over the Watergate scandal.  I believe it is legitimate to question whether Nixon would have won if he had run a clean campaign.  
If we eliminated those three elections from our pool, then we are left with only four occasions (out of 23 elections) in which the shorter candidate has won. Expressed differently, the taller candidate has won 82 percent of all elections.
Incidentally, for all you serious statisticians out there, I have assumed that overweight/obese characteristics are evenly distributed among people who are above and below median height.  But that might be incorrect, so, again, these figures might need to be tweaked.
What about facial characteristics?
In 2007, a fascinating study was conducted by researchers at Princeton University in which graduate students were shown photographs of senatorial and gubernatorial candidates that they did not know and asked to determine, based on looks alone, which one appeared more competent.  As reported on ABC News by Raja Jagadeesan, M.D., the participants correctly predicted the winners of the actual gubernatorial campaign 69 percent of the time, and the winners of the senatorial campaigns 72 percent of the time.  This is without ever actually seeing the candidates or knowing anything about their policies, experience, or political party.
While the study was small, and a larger follow-up study might provide more credibility, the results still are eye opening.  Of course, a similar study could not be conducted on presidential candidates since almost all voters could identify them by appearance.  However, it should be noted that if the Princeton study were accurate, then it would suggest that the major presidential candidates have already gone through a facial “vetting” process in order to have become governor or senator, and be in a position to run for president. 
So how do we choose our presidents?
First we eliminate over 90 percent of the population: women, heavy or obese men, and men who are below average height.  Facial characteristics also play a significant role.  Then, of the remaining pool of candidates, which in my view is clearly below 10 percent, we try to find decent candidates.  And then, usually, we elect the tallest one.
Statistical likelihood doesn’t mean certainty.  Obama, at 6’1” might defeat Romney at 6’2”.  Either way, it is probable that neither would be in the contest if they didn’t have the requisite looks.
In presidential elections often the winner isn’t the candidate who sings best but the one who best looks the part.  And we’re just touching the surface of the difference between the appearance of competence and actual competence.   


Anonymous said...

1. Breaking news: This is the 21st century.

2. "Frumpy" sounds like a judgment based on appearances. So your cred drops to 0.

3. Obama is the first non-white president. Romney is the first Mormon candidate. Predicting the future based on the past does not seem to apply the way you're using it.

Steve said...

Hi David,

There's nothing particularly new here. Ed Schein, in "Organizational Culture and Leadership," and other publications, discusses the point that we view leaders through the lens of our cultural expectations. To the extent that our culture is biased towards male leaders, it is harder for a woman to be seen as a leader. Those cultural expectations are changing, but are still very powerful.

Other studies have found plenty of data that show that we select, or at least are biased towards, leaders based on looks, fitness, etc. Looking like a leader doesn't make you a good leader, of course, but ultimately to be a leader only requires one thing: that people follow. If people follow you, you're leading.

I discuss some of this in my book, "The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development," and more in "Organizational Psychology for Managers," due out next year.


Jason said...

David, good article. did you know that the exact same things are predictors of leaders in Europe? I can tell you that it's the same in the business world too.

Ralph said...

I can't follow Anonymous' reasoning above. How does David lose credibility by calling Susan Boyle frumpy or by omitting the fact that Romney is Mormon? He's still a tall handsome white man, isn't he?

And while some might argue that there's nothing particularly new about leaders having certain physical characteristics, I believe David has raised the bar by demonstrating how blind we are to inner beauty even when making what could be construed as the most important decision of the free world. When you look at the statistics, it's downright scarey.

Pattianna Harootian said...

Last line is my favorite! Well written and very interesting.