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Republican voters know GOP when they see it

Courtesy of Christopher Olivola

Which one is the Republican? (Clockwise, from top left: Rick Santorum, Ron Klink, Rick Perry, Tony Sanchez)

Appearance has always mattered in politics. But a new study might have Republican candidates working extra hard to look more, well, Republican, whatever that might mean.

That’s because new research finds that political facial stereotypes may help Republican candidates get more votes.

Before we get too far, no, social scientists haven't identified a particular Republican look. They haven't sussed out the exact haircut, facial expression or tilt of jaw that might signal someone is a winner for the GOP.

What they have done is to determine that looking more stereotypically Republican seems to help candidates get more votes from people who lean politically toward the right, according to a study in the latest issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The study found that left-leaning people don't rely on political facial stereotypes as much. Democratic voters, for instance, tend to be much less influenced by how liberal- or conservative-looking a candidate seems, the research suggests.

Although other studies have shown that both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. seem to be influenced by facial features that make a candidate look more competent, the new study wanted to see if people use visible facial characteristics to judge party affiliation, and whether this can benefit a candidate during an election.

In one experiment, they asked 51 American college students to look at black and white photos of US candidates from the 1995 to 2006 gubernatorial elections and the 2000 to 2008 senatorial races. The students viewed 256 pairs of Republican and Democratic rivals.

With no other information given about the two challengers, students were randomly asked to guess "Which person is the Republican (or the Democratic) candidate?" Volunteers were also asked whether they recognized the politician in the photos, and if they did, those responses were eliminated.

The researchers looked at how well people could guess political party from a candidate's appearance. Then they compared these facial stereotypes to the actual election results and the state's voting tendencies during presidential races.

Study participants were more likely to guess that women and ethnic minority candidates were Democrats. When it came to races involving two white men, researchers found that candidates who looked more stereotypically Republican than their rivals -- even if they were truly Democrats -- benefitted more among voters in right-leaning states.

What did they mean by "stereotypically Republican?" Again, the researchers aren't sure.

"We don't yet know what physical cues people may have been using to guess which candidate was the Republican or Democrat," says study author Christopher Olivola. He is doing a fellowship in behavioral science at the Warwick Business School in Coventry, England.

A second study done with more than 200 people aged 18 to 67 found similar results: Republican voters seemed to be more influenced by facial stereotypes than Democrats were.

"The finding that political facial stereotypes might influence voting was a bit of a surprise," says Olivola. "We also did not expect to find a difference between liberal and conservative voters."

So, we asked Olivola whether his research would also apply to a one-party primary, such as the GOP contest now heating up in South Carolina.

"Our findings would suggest that in Republican primaries, the more conservative-looking candidate would have an advantage over his or her rivals, all else being equal," he says.

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