Schoolyard Politics: The Role of Height in Elections

What the numbers say about the role of candidate height in presidential politics

Posted Mar 01, 2020

Recent schoolyard behavior by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Republican President Donald Trump toward one of their political opponents has reignited the discussion about the effects of height on U.S. presidential politics. Sometimes referred to as the “presidential height index,” it suggests that the taller of the two presidential candidates is most likely to win on Election Day.

Since most voters say they evaluate candidates on a number of more important issues – e.g., policy positions, the state of the economy, and party – it’s hard to imagine that the physical height of a candidate comes into play. What do the numbers tell us?

The following table reports the U.S presidential candidates and their heights for all 58 elections (1789-2016). After removing the 11 elections in which the candidates were the same height (e.g., both John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were 6’0” tall), the taller of the two candidates won the presidency 57% of the time. That suggests height may have an effect, but it’s not a terribly strong tendency, particularly given the small number of cases.

 Gregg R. Murray
Source: Source: Gregg R. Murray

The results are more interesting when considering the winner of the popular vote instead of the winner of the Electoral College vote. The Founding Fathers did not trust the people when it came to electing presidents, so they created the Electoral College, whose elite members could overturn the vote of the people – the popular vote – if they felt the people were being overly swayed by their passions.  

The winner of the popular vote has lost the Electoral College vote and not been sworn as president four times (1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016). There are a number of historical caveats, but after removing the elections in which the candidates were the same height, the taller of the two candidates won the popular vote 62% of the time.

So, there is reasonable evidence that the physical height of candidates plays a role in the outcomes of U.S. presidential elections.

What about the rest of us?

But there are other important effects worth recognizing. The table also includes the average height of male citizens when each election was held. It’s interesting to see how the height of the typical male varies over time. For instance, note how it decreases following the ravages of the Civil War and going into the Great Depression, when economic times were difficult.

That said, the table shows that there is a strong tendency for the winner of the election to be taller than the typical male citizen (all U.S. presidents have been male, so it makes sense to compare them only to male citizens). In 81% of the elections, the winning candidate was taller than the typical male. In particular, the winning candidate was, on average, 4% taller – almost three inches.

Further, even the shorter of the two candidates was taller than the typical male citizen 57% of the time, which translates into about a 1% advantage on average – slightly less than one inch.

Why on Earth...?

There is no doubt that this does not seem to fit with what we think of as ideal voting behavior. But there may be forces beyond typical voting issues at play.

A number of scholars have suggested that the unexpected role of physical stature in political leadership ties back to human evolutionary history. The environment during this time was harsh and often violent. Human ancestors had to acquire and protect vital resources like food, shelter, and mates from a variety of predators, both human and animal. One explanation suggests that ancestors who made physically formidable allies who could help them if challenged over vital resources might be more likely to survive and reproduce: the classic evolutionary process.

Another approach suggests it may be the result of self-selection among potential leaders. Given followers’ preferences for physically formidable leaders, tall individuals, males in particular, who experience a lifetime of being told they look like a leader, may be more likely to consider themselves qualified to be a leader and, therefore, put themselves forward as a candidate.

Welcome to the schoolyard in the savannah.