If all one needs to win a US presidential election is to be taller than one’s opponent then it will be an easy victory for Mitt Romney on 6 November 2012. At 6'2" (1,88 cm) Romney towers above the current president by one single inch.
Does one single inch make a difference in the US election? That’s hard to say. New research suggests however that presidential height does make a difference and it also explains why we want our leaders tall and strong.
In a recent article in the Leadership Quarterly, with the provocative title “Tall claims? Sense and nonsense about the importance of height of US presidents” a team of Dutch scientists looked at the results of 56 US presidential elections since 1789.1 Eleven elections were excluded either because there were no rival candidates, the candidates did not differ in height, or height data were unavailable.
First, they examined the differences between the president’s height and that of the average male population from the same birth cohort (based on data from the military). Only seven presidents turned out to be shorter than the average male: James Madison, Benjamin Harrison, Martin van Buren, William McKinley, John and John Quincy Adams’s and Zachary Taylor. Madison was the shortest with 5ft4 and Lincoln was the tallest with 6'4". Interestingly, the more recent the election the bigger the height advantage of the president. This suggests that in a TV dominated era height matters more, basically because everyone in the country can see the difference with their own eyes.
Is the taller candidate more likely to win the election? The evidence is a bit mixed here. Their analysis of 45 elections suggests that the taller candidate won 26 times (58%) and lost 19 times (42%).2 However, this comes with two reservations. First, in more recent the elections the height advantage was greater. Second, when both candidates had never run for office before, the tallest of the candidates only won 52% of the time.
Yet, given the complications of the US presidential voting system, it is fairer to look at the share of the popular vote. When considering this, the taller candidate won 67% of the time which shows a clear height leadership advantage.
The researchers also looked at whether height could predict whether the president got re-elected. The data show that the fifteen presidents who were re-elected were on average nearly two inches taller than presidents not re-elected. Thus, re-elected presidents were taller than presidents who were not re-elected. This seems bad news for Obama.
Why should height matter? A recent study addressed this.3 We gave 256 participants pictures of business leaders to rate. Half of the participants saw a version of the same leader in which he looked short (e.g, John Short) and the other half where John looked tall. We then asked participants to rate these individuals in terms of their leadership qualities. The taller versions of the same person were rated as more leader-like. Furthermore, the height leadership advantage was greater for men than for women leaders.
So why did our participants prefer to be led by John Tall? We discovered that it had something to do with perceptions about their dominance and health. Our preference for taller leaders maybe biologically hardwired, because in a dangerous ancestral environment following a physically strong leader could have made the difference between life and death.4
Our findings also show that taller women were perceived as less leader-like even compared to shorter men. But taller women were perceived to be better leaders than shorter women. Yet this had nothing to do with dominance. Taller female leaders were rated as more intelligent.
All in all, these new findings suggest that when it comes to height even 1 inch might make a difference in determining the outcome of the US presidential election. So Romney has a clear advantage in winning the popular vote. Whether or not that is enough to beat Obama remains to be seen.
When it gets reallly edgy, Obama should consider playing his trump card Michele because in the Battle Between the First Ladies Michelle Obama towers well above her rival, Ann Romney.
1. Stulp, Buunk, Verhulst & Pollet (2012). Tall claims? Sense and nonsense about the importance of height of US presidents. Leadership Quarterly.
2. Murray & Schmitz (2011). Caveman politics. Social Science Quarterly.
3. Blaker, Rompa, Dessing, Vriend, Herschberg, & Van Vugt. (2013). The height leadership advantage in men and women: Testing evolutionary psychology predictions about the perceptions of tall leaders. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.
4. Van Vugt, Hogan & Kaiser (2008). Leadership, followership, and evolution. American Psychologist.