The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Do Attractive Politicians Get a ‘Break’ When They are Involved in Scandals?

Daniel Stockemer and Rodrigo Praino

Researchers often refer to the connection that exists in people’s minds between “beautiful” and “good” as an axiom. Good looking individuals generally obtain various advantages in life.  Just to name a few of these advantages, they more easily make friends, they receive pay premium at their job and they normally advance their careers faster.  In politics, this idea that “beautiful is good” is thousands of years old; the first reference we could find to this way of thinking dates back to Plato’s Lysis. It basically means that attractive politicians receive more votes than unattractive politicians at the ballot box. If “beautiful is good” then, mutatis mutandi, “ugly” must be “bad.” In fact, research does show that ugly politicians do get less votes at the ballot box.

Very similarly, “bad” politicians who get entangled in scandals while in office tend to lose electoral support, at least at the election immediately after the scandal becomes public. This makes perfect sense. If being “good” triggers a reward by voters, than being “bad” must trigger a punishment. The problem is that both attractive and unattractive politicians can act “bad” and end-up involved in a scandal. As a consequence, what happens when the “beautiful” and the “bad” find their expression in the same politician?

In our article, we show that attractive politicians do get a ‘break’ when they are involved in scandals. Using University students as naïve coders in a version of the truth-of-consensus method, we collected original data on the physical attractiveness of every member of the U.S. House of Representatives who has been involved in a public scandal between 1972 and 2012. We used these data to test the moderating influence of physical attractiveness in the relationship between scandal involvement and incumbents’ electoral success. In general, we find that attractive politicians can survive a scandal with very little or no electoral consequences. In the meantime, unattractive politicians tend to be punished more harshly for their transgressions. In more detail, our results indicate that incumbents deemed physically attractive by our coders who choose to run for re-election after a scandal breaks not only tend to get re-elected in large numbers but also tend to suffer very little in terms of total votes received. In other words, it seems that their physical attractiveness somehow protects them from the electoral consequences of being involved in a scandal.

But not all scandals are created equal, and voters do seem to differentiate between different types of scandals. For example, according to our analysis, candidate attractiveness plays the largest positive role in presence of sex scandals. In essence, attractive politicians can easily survive a sex scandal, while unattractive politicians tend to pay a very steep price in terms of votes for their sexual transgressions. In fact, based on our analysis, it seems almost impossible for a very unattractive candidate to recover from a sex scandal. We also find that voters are not willing to forgive financial transgressions, regardless of how a politician looks. In other words, bribery, corruption, misappropriation and misuse of funds are off-limits, even for the most attractive politician. This finding implies there are limits to the ‘breaks’ that attractive individuals receive. In particular, voters, seem to draw a line in the sand when it comes to scandals of financial nature.




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