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Do Candidates Matter At All? Yes.

Andrew Gelman is clearly not amused by my New York Times magazine column wondering why Republican elites are trying to draft such poor candidates into the presidential field. Gelman's item has a lot of problems, beginning with the fact that it's aimed at an argument I didn't make anywhere in my column. Gelman attacks me for asserting that candidate personality, rather than economic fundamentals, is the most important factor in a presidential race:

I'm not saying that the study that David Brooks Jonathan Chait is citing is wrong, exactly, but I don't think it provides evidence that Mitch Daniels would be dead meat in the presidential election. What matters is the economy.
Why this annoys me so much
There's some political science research on the importance of the fundamentals in presidential elections. But that's pretty obscure stuff. You can't very well expect a political pundit to be reading back issues of the British Journal of Political Science (yep, that's where our article appeared, even though it was all about the U.S. We first submitted it to the American Political Science Review but they rejected it. Too many graphs and not enough tables, I think.) So, sure, I can't blame Chait for not being up on the research consensus.

Right. Arguing that the political talent of a nominee matters more than the economy and fundamentals would be silly, and ignorant of political science research. That's why I didn't argue it. Indeed, I am very familiar with the research consensus. I've been referring to it on my blog repeatedly. However, there is not a consensus that says that political fundamentals control 100% of the outcome. Candidate quality does exert some influence. Within the small portion of election outcomes influenced by candidate quality, candidate quality is important. I appreciate that Gelman has a PhD and I do not, but a degree clearly does not always signify strong comprehension skills.

Indeed, Gelman proceeds to launch a highly convoluted attack on my argument. He inaccurately interprets my description of candidate talent as being defined entirely as a matter of personal appearance, when I was obviously arguing that appearance constitutes just one part of candidate talent. (That's why I argue that the tall, handsome Jeb Bush would nonetheless be a poor messenger.) He proceeds to dispute the notion that appearances play any role in political outcomes:

Chait also pulls out this line:
A series of experiments has shown that subjects, even young children, can reliably pick the winners of races based solely on candidate photos.
No no no no no! As I wrote a couple years ago about a study that claimed an impressive 70% accuracy in predicting winners based on their looks:
It's a funny result: at first it seems impressive--70% accuracy!--but then again it's not so impressive given that you can predict something on the order of 90% of races just based on incumbency and the partisan preferences of the voters in the states and districts. I can't be sure what's happening here, but one possibility is that the more serious candidates (the ones we know are going to win anyway) are more attractive.

Uh, what? I agree that incumbency and partisan preference is massively important. Doesn't that make the high rate of appearance-based guessing more impressive? After all, the GOP candidate in rural Utah or the Democrat in Detroit is going to win even if he's a 4'7 hunchback with an extra limb growing out of his neck. If that factor is skewing the results of these studies, it's skewing them to make the appearance findings more impressive.

The study linked in my column concludes, "we find that appealing-looking politicians benefit disproportionately from television exposure, primarily among less knowledgeable individuals." I don't see anything in his item that contravenes that finding, let alone anything that justifies his angry assertions that I'm the one ignoring the evidence.

Gelman also expresses his umbrage that I would insult the good voters of our fair Republic:

It really irritates me when pundits trivialize politics and insult the voters. ...
Here's a rule of thumb. When thinking about "the voters," think a bit about yourself. Do you vote based on a candidate's looks? No. So why are you so so so sure that the ordinary undecided voters is doing so?

Well, I know enough about political science to know that voters in fact have very little knowledge about the positions of the candidates they vote for. Indeed, there is an overwhelming amount of research establishing this. I won't match Gelman's condescending demand that he familiarize himself with the basic research, etc. he's entitled to a minority view. But if he wants to attack me on the basis of his minority view, he should be explicit about that instead of playing the "I know the research and you don't" card. And his indignant defense of the decision-making capacity of the American voters is, to say the least, in tension with his other argument that the economy is all that matters. If the voters really have such powerful skills of ideological discernment, then a small change in personal income growth in Q2 of an election year really shouldn't be all that important.

The incoherence of Gelman's argument is well-summarized by this passage:

I don't know what's gonna happen in 2012, but political science research suggests that the Republicans could nominate a goofy short guy with glasses, or a rude fat guy, or whatever, and it wouldn't make much of a difference. (Haley Barbour is a different story: a conservative from Mississippi could be far enough from the national mainstream to get hurt on ideology. But even then we're talking a percentage point or two.)

Where to begin? He concedes that Barbour could be hurt "on ideology." But is Barbour more conservative substantively than most of his opponents? Not at all. Barbour is right in the Republican mainstream. His weakness is precisely the non-ideological aspects of his political persona. And then Gelman begins by saying such factors "wouldn't make much of a difference," but winds up noting offhand that we could be talking about a percentage point or two. That's a lot! Parties and candidates will kill themselves to move the needle a percentage point or two in a presidential race. And again, the fundamentals determine the bigger picture, but within that big picture political tactics and candidate quality still matters around the margins.

I am sorry Gelman is so annoyed, but his annoyance could have been avoided by paying a little better attention both to the relevant evidence of the field and to the actual point of my column.