by Margaret Weigel, The Journalist's Resource
October 13, 2011
The first televised U.S. presidential debates in 1960 changed the nature of American political campaigns. During that initial debate, television viewers listened to each candidate and also saw Nixon’s wrinkled shirt and five o’clock shadow, and Kennedy’s youthful demeanor and classic good looks. It has become a commonplace trope that radio listeners deemed Nixon the winner, but television viewers thought Kennedy won. In any case, candidates have increasingly focused on “looking the part” of the vigorous and attractive candidate ever since.
A 2011 study by political scientists at MIT published in the American Journal of Political Science, "Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates’ Appearance," examines the extent to which a candidate’s appearance impacts his popularity with less informed voters. The study uses data from 35 gubernatorial and 29 Senate races in 2006 correlated with the results of a survey measuring voter intent, general levels of political knowledge, and hours of television exposure.
Key study findings include:
The researchers conclude, "Since the advent of television, political observers have fretted about the degree to which it privileges image over substancel... The results we report appear to confirm some of these long-standing fears. Politicians who merely look the part benefit from TV, especially among less-informed citizens."
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