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Looks are important in the campaign

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Scott Jagow: A study out today suggests what a candidate looks like has a lot to do with their chances of getting elected. Researchers studied the effectiveness of branding and advertising on 112 congressional elections. They found that Republicans who had the most success appeared competent and trustworthy — the high school quarterback stereotype. Democrats preferred candidates who seemed intelligent and likeable — more of a college professor type.

Marketing professor Michael Lewis led this study at Washington University in St. Louis. So Michael, do we boil elections down to an appearance contest?

Michael Lewis: Oh no, no no. I mean, you know, we look at both spending and his appearance variables. And while what a candidate looks like is important, how much the candidate has to spend to get the message out there is much, much more so important.

Jagow: So now, we’re saying that the amount of money that they spend plus the appearance, those two are the most important things.

Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. And in a way, you know, we found . . . sort of viewed this as positive. Money, and I know a lot of people would think that money driving political results is kind of unfortunate, but our take on it was when there was more money involved and the messages were actually getting out, those effects dwarfed the appearance of facts.

Jagow: Well, what about how the money is spent, or who is spending the money?

Lewis: Well, we actually did find a couple of interesting results there as well. Challengers actually ended up getting a better rate of return in terms of vote share for the amount of money we spent. And perhaps even more strikingly, we found that challengers tended to do better when they engaged in negative advertising, where incumbents actually tended to hurt themselves when they went negative. To sort of put this in marketing terms, if we think about incumbents as established brands that voters or consumers are very aware of, I think there should be a lot of hesitation about going negative.

Jagow: Mmhmm. Have you made any immediate connections between what you found and the candidates that are out there on the trail right now?

Lewis: I mean, we haven’t directly assessed the apparent advantages of the presidential contenders at this point. We’ve had a lot of conversation about them, of course. Let’s say this, I mean on the Republican side, there’s one candidate who quickly comes to mind, and that’s Mitt Romney. I mean, he looks like a prototypical Republican candidate. On the Democratic side, you know, we’ve had a lot of discussion about some of these other traits of likeability, and in particular, when we see how Hillary Clinton is performing on the campaign trail versus Obama, you know, there is something of a likeability gap. And so the appearance variables are not the whole story, but they do seem to tell a story that’s consistent with what we’re seeing play out.

Jagow: Michael Lewis is a marketing professor at the business school at Washington University in St. Louis. Thanks for joining us.

Lewis: Thank you.

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