Forget putting out policy platforms and detailed descriptions of stances: What candidates really need are good looks. Danny Oppenheimer, associate professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton University, says research shows that people more often than not base their decisions on gut feelings. Researchers can even get a pretty good sense of who is going to win an election by exposing people to faces of the candidates for just 100 milliseconds, which is how long it takes to form a first impression, says Oppenheimer, co-author of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well.
There are certain traits that voters are attracted to, he says. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, naturally has a leg up on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich because he is taller, has better hair and high cheekbones. "You look at Romney standing next to Gingrich and Romney looks more presidential, and that's going to affect voters," says Oppenheimer, acknowledging that the criterion is unfair. "It's not Newt's fault that he doesn't have the same stature that Romney does, and it doesn't say anything about their policy positions."
If Romney wins the GOP nomination, he will face off with President Obama, who happens to be slightly shorter. This could give Romney an edge, says Oppenheimer. Statistics show that in 80 percent of presidential elections, the taller candidate wins.
But even if the electorate were blindfolded, they would still vote based on emotional response. "Most voters don't really know enough about the Obama healthcare policy to be able to analyze it, and they don't really know what Romney's alternative is," says Oppenheimer. "So it's not that they're making informed decisions on healthcare policy, it's which candidate sounds smarter when they talk about it."
If this research on how people really make political decisions sounds scary, that's because it is, says Oppenheimer. But the paradox, he says, is that democracies have proved to be more effective in ensuring freedom and getting goods and services to their citizens than any other system in the world. Apparently, gut reactions have produced successful outcomes.