The Dartmouth team used a technology called MouseTracker to arrive at the results. In essence, the 300 participants were shown a candidate's face on screen and asked to identify the gender as quickly as possible. Then the results of how quickly they moused over to the gender were compared for a variety of faces and matched up with the win-loss record of the candidates, which were pulled from the winners and second-place finishers in Senate and gubernatorial election between 1998 and 2010. (You can watch a video explaining the process here.)
The findings affirm what other studies have shown: Looks (or at least adherence to traditional assumptions about gender) matter — and people make snap decisions (largely) based on looks about a candidate in an instant. There's a reason — particularly in this age not just of television but of high-definition television — that less-attractive candidates tend to win less often. (As we've often maintained, if looks matter in every other facet of life, why wouldn't they matter in politics?)
The Dartmouth study also suggests that looking feminine matters more to a female candidate's chances of winning than looking masculine matters to a male candidate's prospects. Again, according to the study:
Earlier studies also have linked perceptions of competence in male politicians' faces to political success. But the Dartmouth-led study demonstrates for the first time that gendered cues uniquely predict female politicians’ electoral success above and beyond competence, suggesting a discrepancy between traits used to evaluate male and female politicians.
Put in regular people terms: Male candidates' looks are judged more by whether they appear able to do the job while, at least according to the Dartmouth study, female candidates' looks are seen first through the prism of femininity.
It's hard to avoid viewing this study in light of the potential (likely) candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. As we have previously written, Clinton played down her gender — and the historic nature of her candidacy — during the 2008 candidacy, a move that we believe hurt her. She's not likely to repeat that mistake in 2016 — if her earlier rhetoric is any indication — but the Dartmouth study suggests that what she says may matter less to voters than how she looks, all of which reaffirms that life really is just like high school.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Dartmouth University. The institution is called Dartmouth College.