Politics is showbusiness for ugly people, the old maxim goes – but maybe not for much longer. Beautiful politicians win more votes, ANU research released today  has found.

In a study that takes its lead from Crikey’s Sexiest Pol competition, ANU economist Dr Andrew Leigh and University of South Australia student Amy King asked an independent group of ‘beauty raters’ to assess the looks of 286 major party candidates who ran in the 2004 federal election.

Their research found that voters tend to opt for the better-looking candidate – and that can give parties a winning edge.

“Compared to the average-looking political candidate, a candidate at the 84th percentile of the beauty distribution, as judged by our independent raters, receives an extra 1½ to 2 per cent of the vote. In some seats, this is the difference between winning and losing,” Leigh says.

“Analysing Australian elections has two major advantages over previous studies of beauty and voting behaviour,” the study reports. “First, since voting is compulsory in Australia, we are able to estimate the effect of attractiveness on voting across the adult population. Second, Australian voters arriving at a polling place are almost invariably handed a ‘How to Vote’ card for each of the major parties. Since these cards feature a photo of the candidate, we can be sure that our measure of beauty matches that of the voter.”

Leigh and King used photographs from how-to-vote cards, which were then rated by four independent raters chosen to be representative of the electorate.

“For both male and female candidates, it helps to be better-looking. But we find some evidence that beauty benefits male candidates more than female candidates. This may be because female beauty carries negative connotations in the minds of some voters,” says Leigh.

“Beauty matters more for challengers than for incumbents. This suggests that looks affect first impressions. Once voters come to know a politician, their physical appearance does not matter as much.”

The study involved careful checks and balances. “As a robustness check, we also asked a 59-year-old US woman (of Anglo-Saxon ancestry) to rate the photos. This was done to account for the possibility that some of our Australian raters may be unable to objectively rate the beauty of well-known politicians. Our US rater could not identify any of the politicians in the sample, including the Prime Minister, John Howard.”

The study explains why we’ve got the government we’ve got – but may do little for Coalition unity. It finds that Liberal Party candidates were more attractive than Labor Party or National Party candidates.

It also does little for the leaders: “The party leaders were rated as less attractive than average,” it says. “Prime Minister John Howard is at the 5th percentile of the beauty distribution. Mark Latham, the Labor Party leader at the 2004 election, was at the 33rd percentile (his successors, Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd, are at the 47th and 15th percentiles, respectively).”

The PM should not despair, however: “Voters in the electorate of Prime Minister John Howard most likely have a good knowledge of Howard as a politician, making it largely irrelevant that his physical beauty rating is lower than 95 percent of all candidates.”

According to the raters, the ten most attractive major party candidates in the 2004 election were: Nicole Campbell (ALP, Bennelong), Adam Giles (Liberal, Fraser), Victoria Brooks (ALP, Riverina), Andrew Laming (Liberal, Bowman), Julie Bishop (Liberal, Curtin), Kate Ellis (ALP, Adelaide), Sarah McMahon (Liberal, Reid), Michael Keenan (Liberal, Stirling), Pat Farmer (Liberal, Macarthur), and Sussan Ley (Liberal, Farrer).

And the ugliest? “We haven’t produced a list of the ten least attractive,” Leigh told Crikey today. “Too unkind…”

“But we can say that our raters didn’t like beards, so they probably would’ve rated the founding fathers of federation very lowly.”

Peter Fray

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