FOR THE fifth time in its last six tries, the Democratic Party has managed to parlay its massive lead in party identifiers into another presidential election debacle. One shameless Democratic apologist, groping for a face-saving excuse, has hit upon the bizarre idea that the Democrats lose presidential elections time after time because, being rational political calculators, they find it in their partisan self-interest to do so (Erikson, 1988). This tortured theory overlooks the obvious: Democrats are too stupid to calculate their self-interest.
Although this conclusion may seem unduly harsh, science has proven that Democrats are significantly dumber than Republicans, even when the differing social bases of the two parties are held constant (Sigelman, 1988). This intellectual deficit helps explain why, time and time again, the Democrats find themselves hopelessly out-organized, out-strategized and out-maneuvered -- in short, out-thought -- by the wilier Republicans.
Still, Democrats may have more than a shortage of gray matter to blame for their electoral misadventures. In the television age, what really matters is not what candidates have to say about the great issues of the day, which makes remarkably little difference to anyone, but how they look when they are saying it (see, e.g., Rosenberg, Bohan, McCaffery and Harris, 1986). In the sage words of Thackeray: "A clever, ugly man every now and then is successful . . . but a handsome fool is irresistible." Is it possible, then, that in addition to being intellectually overshadowed, the Democrats have been aesthetically outflanked? In plain English, are the Democrats ugly as well as stupid? Data and Methods
Any natural-born citizen who has lived in the United States for 14 years and is at least 35 years old is formally eligible to become president. In practice, however, those without experience in high public office need not apply. Of the 61 active candidates in the last five presidential campaigns, only Alexander Haig, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson and Sargent Shriver failed to list on their resumes at least one term as governor or member of Congress (updated from Abramson, Aldrich and Rohde, 1987).
The issue, then, is whether the Democrats are at a disadvantage because the Republicans have a more eye-pleasing pool of potential presidential candidates from which to choose. In order to find out, the 50 governors, 100 senators and 435 House members pictured in "The Almanac of American Politics 1988" (Barone and Ujifusa, 1988) were rated on an Ugliness Scale ranging from +5 ("Yummie") to -5 ("Yecch"). Findings
As Figure 1 indicates, very few high officeholders in either party are downright repulsive. Even so, these data contain some worrisome portents. Of the five most hideous officials, four hail from California. So if, as is so widely assumed, it is in the Golden State that the future of American politics takes shape, we seem to be in for a long ugly spell.
Now, what about the inter-party ugliness differential? Figure 1 confirms the hypothesized glamour gap. It is the extremely rare Democrat (only three of 338) who scores above +3 on the ugliness scale; but more than 10 percent of the Republicans (28 of 247) do so. Meanwhile, 25 of the 26 most unsightly officials are Democrats. Overall, the Republican mean of 1.2 falls significantly above the Democratic mean of -.5.
Of course, this difference could be spurious. For example, Democratic officeholders may be older than their Republican counterparts, and it is well known that old people are ugly.
Moreover, the intense competition for gubernatorial and senatorial seats may weed out more of the truly abominable than do House races, few of which are closely contested; if so, then appalling looks may not be an attribute of Democratic office-holders per se, but rather of members of the House, where the Democrats predominate.
A regression-based investigation of these possibilities reveals that older office-holders are indeed significantly uglier than their younger colleagues. Also as expected, there is significantly greater per capita pulchritude in governors' mansions and the Senate chambers than can be found on the floor of the House. But the crucial question is whether the inter-party ugliness differential remains when age and position are held constant. The answer is that it does: Controlling for these factors lowers the gap only by one-tenth of a point, from 1.7 to 1.6. Discussion
In spite of the profusion of gleaming pates, sloping foreheads, crossed eyes, flapping ears, prominent proboscises and cascading chins among them, it would be incorrect to conclude that the Democrats have cornered the market in grotesquerie. There are ugly Republicans, too. Still, the Democrats possess, in truly awesome abundance, physical attributes that torment the eyes of the beholder. Compared to the ugly duckling Democrats, the Republicans are comely Quayles.
Since looks matter so much in modern electoral politics, the Democrats enter each election year at a severe competitive disadvantage. In order to meet the Republicans head to head, so to speak, the Democrats would have to choose their candidates with consummate care. But it is here that cruel reality intercedes, for stupidity and ugliness actually impose a triple burden:
(1) Because there are so few intelligent Democratic contenders to choose from, the Democrats nominate mental lightweights who conduct silly campaigns.
(2) Because there are so many ugly Democratic contenders to choose from, the Democrats select standard bearers who are not only dumb but ugly.
(3) And because the Democrats are so dense, they have no inkling of how much better off they would be if they deliberately nominated someone the voters could bear to look at and listen to. Having chosen a candidate who spends the fall saying stupid things and looking stupid saying them, the Democrats are then invariably shocked when, in November, the Republicans register yet another handsome victory. Notes
1. The rating was done by a middle-aged woman who has an inordinate fondness for pictures of men. She is a known sympathizer of "L-word" causes, and her knee jerked uncontrollably throughout the exercise. This information should allay any suspicion that the ratings may have been "cooked" to support the research hypothesis, a strategy that, I hasten to assure the reader, never even occurred to me.
2. Hatfield and Sprecher (1986: 287) summarize the link between age and physical attractiveness as follows:
Q. What is this? "10, 9, 8 . . . ."
A. Bo Derek growing older.References
Abramson, Paul R., John H. Aldrich and David W. Rohde. 1987. "Progressive Ambition among United States Senators: 1972-1988." Journal of Politics 49:3-35.
Barone, Michael and Grant Ujifusa. 1988. The Almanac of American Politics 1988. Washington, D.C.: National Journal Press.
Erikson, Robert S. 1988. "Why the Democrats Lose Presidential Elections: Toward a Theory of Optimal Loss." Mimeo.
Hatfield, Elaine and Susan Sprecher. 1986. Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rosenberg, Shawn, Lisa Bohan, Patrick McCafferty and Kevin Harris. 1986. "The Image and the Vote: The Effect of Candidate Presentation on Voter Preference." American Journal of Political Science 30:108-127.
Sigelman, Lee. 1988. "Are Democrats Stupid?" Journal of Irreproducible Results (March/April): 2-4.
Lee Sigelman is dean of the faculty of social and behavioral sciences and professor of political science, communication and public administration at the University of Arizona.