Forget the Dukakis-in-a-tank effect: the Democrats would’ve lost in 1988 even if they’d had Burt Reynolds at the top of the ticket

Jonathan Chait writes that the most important aspect of a presidential candidate is “political talent”:

Republicans have generally understood that an agenda tilted toward the desires of the powerful requires a skilled frontman who can pitch Middle America. Favorite character types include jocks, movie stars, folksy Texans and war heroes. . . . [But the frontrunners for the 2012 Republican nomination] make Michael Dukakis look like John F. Kennedy. They are qualified enough to serve as president, but wildly unqualified to run for president. . . . [Mitch] Daniels’s drawbacks begin—but by no means end—with his lack of height, hair and charisma. . . . [Jeb Bush] suffers from an inherent branding challenge [because of his last name]. . . . [Chris] Christie . . . doesn’t cut a trim figure and who specializes in verbally abusing his constituents. . . . [Haley] Barbour is the comic embodiment of his party’s most negative stereotypes. A Barbour nomination would be the rough equivalent of the Democrats’ nominating Howard Dean, if Dean also happened to be a draft-dodging transsexual owner of a vegan food co-op.

Chait continues:

The impulse to envision one of these figures as a frontman represents a category error. These are the kind of people you want advising the president behind the scenes; these are not the people you put in front of the camera. The presidential candidate is the star of a television show about a tall, attractive person who can be seen donning hard hats, nodding at the advice of military commanders and gazing off into the future.

Geddit? Mike Dukakis was short, ethnic-looking, and didn’t look good in a tank. (He did his military service in peacetime.) And did I mention that his middle name was Stanley? Who would vote for such a jerk?

All I can say is that Dukakis performed about as well in 1988 as would be predicted from the economy at the time. Here’s a graph based on Doug Hibbs’s model:


Sorry, but I don’t think the Democrats would’ve won the 1988 presidential election even if they’d had Burt Reynolds at the top of the ticket. And, remember, George H. W. Bush was widely considered to be a wimp and a poser until he up and won the election. Conversely, had Dukakis won (which he probably would’ve, had the economy been slumping that year), I think we’d be hearing about how he was a savvy low-key cool dude.

Let me go on a bit more about the 1988 election.

Suppose it’s true, as Chait believes, that Americans want their Presidents to look like Clint Eastwood rather than Danny De Vito. How come Dukakis was way ahead in the polls at the start of the general election campaign? The starting point is when people have the least information, when they’re the most superficial. It was by the end of the campaign, at which point voters focused more on party and ideology (see this article) and learned more about the candidates’ ideologies and issue positions, that they decided to go for the preppie from Connecticut over the wimp from Massachusetts.

To political scientists, this perspective—presidential elections turn on issues and the economy, not on charisma superficial perceptions of the candidates—is not new. Steven Rosenstone made the argument in his classic 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections. And the political-science view of presidential campaigns has been gaining ground among knowledgeable reporters as well. Unfortunately it hasn’t made its way to the New York Times Magazine yet, but give it time.

My goal is not to mock

Chait is making an understandable error. He’s close to the action and focuses on the details of the candidates. And candidate effects are complicated. His article concludes:

In an old “Simpsons” episode, the unlikable brainiac Artie Ziff is elected prom king. “Instead of voting for some athletic hero or a pretty boy, you have elected me, your intellectual superior, as your king,” he says. “Good for you!” It’s funny because it hardly ever happens in real life.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), politics is not like the school prom. In the general election for president, the candidates are well-financed, are clearly distinguishable in ideology, and there are only two of them—thus none of the instability, associated with strategic voting, that we see in the primaries.

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.)

It really irritates me when pundits trivialize politics and insult the voters. I’m sure Chait means well and, yes, I know that most voters don’t know anything about the federal budget, probably half of them can’t find Miami on a map, etc. But there’s no evidence that people vote based on candidates’ looks. Certainly not in presidential elections where the stakes are high and their party identification is clear.

If you want to rail at the mistakes voters make and the problems with our political system . . . fine, go for it! There’s a lot to complain about. But please please please please please don’t slam the voters for something they don’t do.

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? Sure, many undecideds know less about politics than you do. But if they went out to vote, they might have some preferences. To think that they’re voting based on looks is just silly. And, more to the point, it’s not borne out by the data.

Check out Hibbs’s graph above.

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.

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. And, as I wrote above, I’m sure he means well. In this case he’s trying to give Republicans the advice to nominate a pretty-boy rather than someone serious. OK, fine. But making a mistake that simultaneously (1) insults the voters, (2) mocks those political insiders who favor substance over style, and (3) brings up the old politics-as-high-school analogy, but this time in all seriousness . . . that’s just annoying.

Chait’s jumping the snark on this one, and I’m sad to see it in my local paper. Especially when so much real politics is going on right now!

10 Responses to Forget the Dukakis-in-a-tank effect: the Democrats would’ve lost in 1988 even if they’d had Burt Reynolds at the top of the ticket

  1. Jonathan Bernstein April 9, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    Fully agree, but with one caveat on the rhetorical strategy: “Think a bit about yourself. Do you vote based on a candidate’s looks?

    C’mon. We know that people are really bad at that sort of thing; you know that if we actually ask people why they voted for Obama or McCain, the odds are that you’re going to get back a whole lot of stuff about personality and other perceived candidate attributes, not “party, modified by a terrible economy.”

  2. Rob April 9, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    If the Democrats had run Burt Reynolds in 1988, I reckon most voters would have wondered why they’d nominated a washed-up star from the seventies rather than somebody who was, you know, currently popular. But then I guess they could have asked the same question about John Kerry.

  3. Andrew Gelman April 9, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    Jonathan: Yeah, good point.

  4. Peter April 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    The featured chart on incumbent success and economic performance appears to treat all incumbents as interchangeable, but I would suggest there subgroups one can select that are not based on personal attributes of the candidates. The chart does suggest that “incumbent fatigue” is a factor-where the incumbent party had been in power for eight years or more, the relationship between economic performance and the success of the incumbent party candidate is weaker-Eisenhower trounced Stevenson, Nixon beat Humphrey, Gore won by a margin so narrow as to enable five Supreme Court justices to appoint Bush. Viewed in this context, I think Dukakis can be characterized as under-performing-he should have at least made it a squeaker.

    That doesn’t mean that it was height or an ethnic name that made the difference, but the Republicans were able to craft a story about him, with some help from Willie Horton-bloodless technocrat, can’t be trusted to differentiate “us” from “them”-even SNL picked up on that with its skit of Dukakis as an extraterrestrial.

  5. KenS April 11, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    I think the Hibbs figure is very important, but this relationship is estimated on the set of incumbent-challenger pairs that were actually observed at general elections. I am not sure that you can infer from this that any challenger randomly drawn from the phonebook would have the same expected vote share as the challengers that were actually produced by the primary process and therefore candidate quality doesn’t matter.

  6. HankGreene April 11, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    I’m a fan of both Gelman and Chait, but I’m guessing that Gelman is not a regular reader of Chait or he would realize that Chait most definitely respects the Political Science and understands the economic fundamentals. This post is basically an attack on a “straw-Chait” and not Chait’s actual argument. Like a skilled movie reviewer, you never want to be on the negative side of an attack from Chait, but I got to give him the best of this one:

  7. Andrew Gelman April 11, 2011 at 11:09 pm #


    Neither Gelman nor Chait appear to be regular readers of the other.

    In any case, I was pleased by Chait’s reply (which did not seem to me to be an “attack”; it seemed like a sincere set of comments, just as mine was to him). He indeed seems to be generally in agreement with political science readers. See here for my further thoughts.


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