Do Voters Discriminate Against Obese Candidates?

by John Sides on September 7, 2011 · 15 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Jon Corzine seemed to hope so.  A Wall Street Journal reporter thought the opposite, trolling message boards in 2008 for people who resented Obama for not being fat.  Here is some evidence, courtesy of a new paper presented at the 2011 APSA meeting.  The authors are Beth Miller, Jennifer Lundgren, Diane Filion, and Lauren Thompson.

Participants in the study were randomized to evaluate candidates who were male or female and obese or not obese.  Obesity was conveyed through digitally altering photographs, as in the example below:

Miller and colleagues find that obese male candidates were actually evaluated more positively than non-obese male candidates.  Obese female candidates, however, were evaluated essentially the same or less positively than non-obese female candidates, depending on the measure of evaluation.  Moreover, obese female candidates also elicited a stronger negative emotional reaction, as measured by the participants’ startle reflex.

To be sure, this is a small study whose participants were exclusively college students.  Nevertheless, these findings dovetail with previous work by Miller and Lundgren, who also find an “obesity penalty” for women candidates but not men.   In the current paper, they offer a bit of speculation about this:

This finding may stem from the pressure in western society on women to be thin and men to have greater muscle mass.

There’s lots more in the paper to chew on.

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