Humans are social creatures who make snap judgments of others based on appearance and behavior. We take short cuts in decision making that lead us to make irrational decisions, and we are more likely to do so when under duress. Judging which Presidential candidate is the best choice during a debate of many candidates who have few well-defined differences in position, represents ones of those situations. Unfortunately, the consequences of faulty decision making about Presidential candidates reverberate for years.
If it is possible to educate people about the biases in judgment they make while deciding who to vote for, the hope is that by doing so people will make more rational choices. In other words, in order to not be bamboozled into liking (or disliking) a candidate for superficial reasons, people need to know what influences our judgments of candidates. They also have to care that they make rational decisions, but that's a topic for another day.
I am afraid the average American chooses political candidates by deciding who they "like" most. Those who care to think a little more may decide who is the most "credible" or "capable." Too many people are too busy to really consider the issues so they end up voting for a candidate for stupid reasons.
What are some of these superficial reasons?
In no particular order:
Numerous studies have shown that people who are more physically attractive are perceived to be more capable, successful, happy, intelligent and just about any other desirable trait you can think of. The trouble is that beautiful people aren't necessarily more capable. We only think they are. Dennis Kucinich is cursed while Mitt Romney comes out a winner on this one. All other things being equal, the more attractive candidate will come out on top.
Size impresses animals, and humans like other animals, are impressed by tall people. Taller people tend to make more money, get raises more often, and as Presidential candidates, the taller candidate has won more of the popular vote in every election since the arrival of the television. We assume tall people, like attractive people, are more competent. In the animal kingdom, size corresponds to dominance.
The pitch of one's voice indicates dominance as well. Lower pitches are perceived to come from more dominant individuals. Vocal cords tighten under duress, so a nervous person or candidate tends to have a slightly higher pitch when talking. Size also influences pitch. Bigger bodies tend to be able to produce deeper notes throughout the animal kingdom. One very interesting study measured the pitch of Presidential candidates' voices during nationally televised debates and found that since 1960, pitch predicted the popular vote outcome in every election (Social Psychology Quarterly, 2002). Women are at a disadvantage here, just as with size, because they tend to be shorter and have higher pitched voices than men.
We like names we've heard of before. In fact, we like just about everything more the more familiarity we have with it. The mere exposure effect is well documented in psychological studies. Although there are a few exceptions to the rule that merely being exposed to a name, face, or object creates more positive feelings, in general the more times a person is exposed, the greater the chance that the person says they like it. That's one reason why raising money is so important. It gives candidates the ability to spread their name through TV ads, billboards, bumper stickers, signs and more.
Several studies of person perception, notably those of social psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz, have shown that people make attributions of a person's competence and credibility based on the size and shape of eyes, cheeks, forehead, lips, and chin. Not surprisingly given what is known about cues to dominance in other animal species, any feature that tends to be associated with testosterone and maleness in humans is a trait people associate with competence. This means that people with relatively small eyes, small cheeks, prominent chin and eyebrows, and thin lips tend to be perceived as more competent and credible.
Gestures and stance.
People who take up more space are believed to be more confident, competent, credible, and in control. That's no surprise either given the connection between size and dominance. An upright posture with shoulders extended uses more space, as does gesturing that is more expansive. More quality research needs to be done on this topic. The bulk of what is known is decades old.
In all, nonverbal cues such as appearance, voice, and name affect attributions people make about a candidate. Because so many cues to competence and credibility are associated with masculine traits, female candidates will be at a disadvantage whenever visual and vocal stimuli predominate. I think people would make more rational electoral choices in the absence of these cues.