Taller Candidates Become President?

I remember being told that one of the reasons why Lincoln won in the so-called Lincoln-Douglas debates was that Lincoln was a foot taller than his opponent. This difference in physicality was apparently the deciding factor, and not the actual content of the debates. From here, a broader extrapolation was that the taller candidate becomes President (of the United States). That little factoid has remained buried in my brain for probably too long.

Wikipedia provides the data and cursory analysis. A lazy internet search reveals this summary of a study by Dutch scientists. And I don’t doubt that others have done such a study as well.

Here’s what I did. I considered only those elections in which neither candidate had made a run for President [primaries don’t count] and considered only those elections after Abraham Lincoln’s last term in office. The latter constraint is often the starting point for the “taller candidate wins” tale. The former constraint is a matter of “freshness” and about the closest I could get for an apples-to-apples comparison [also note: I removed Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Calvin Coolidge since they took first took office without being elected and Jimmy Carter v Gerald Ford since Gerald Ford took over after Richard Nixon’s departure mid-term]; maybe there’s some correlative effect when voters have already seen an individual run for President. These constraints reduce the set of elections to twelve, as shown below. The highlighted row is the election in which the taller candidate won.



Year Winner Winner Height (cm) Loser Loser Height (cm)
2016 Donald Trump 191 Hillary Clinton 165
2008 Barack Obama 185 John McCain 175
2000 George W. Bush 182 Al Gore 185
1988 George H.W. Bush 188 Michael Dukakis 173
1960 John F. Kennedy 183 Richard Nixon 182
1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower 179 Adlai Stevenson II 178
1928 Herbert Hoover 182 Al Smith 180
1920 Warren G. Harding 183 James M. Cox 168
1896 William McKinley 170 William Jennings Bryan 180
1884 Grover Cleveland 180 James G. Blaine 180
1880 James A. Garfield 183 Winfield Hancock 187
1876 Rutherford B. Hayes 174 Samuel Tilden 178

Of these twelve elections, seven of them were won by the taller candidate. This isn’t exactly robust statistical evidence that the taller candidate wins.

We can argue that perhaps there is a larger effect induced by the rise of communication by television and film. Photography came about in the mid-1800s. TV and film started coming out in the early 1900s. From the above list and from 1900 onward, seven of eight elections were won by the taller candidate and the sole detractor from this trend was the infamous “chad election” of Bush v Gore. That’s a decent signal for the “taller candidate” hypothesis since the birth of TV.

But I wouldn’t be willing to assert that the taller candidate wins on a sample size of eight, even if it looks like it is eight out of eight [Bush v Gore, if we count Gore as winner]. Interestingly, from 1900 onward, Hoover and H. W. Bush were the taller candidates who won when their party had won the previous two elections. The other elections were won by candidates who were of a different party than the prevailing party. I’m more willing to accept that voters don’t like for the same party to stay in power for much longer than two terms than to accept that they vote for the taller candidate. In fact, with the exception of FDR during WWII, no party has retained the presidency for more than three terms. The Democratic Party was replaced after one term under Jimmy Carter, and that was the only time a party was replaced after one term. All other cases saw voters flip parties after two terms.

So, while the signal appears to be strong for the taller candidate to win, there is also a strong signal that the party that lost consecutively is now more likely to win the third time around. As such, I’m more inclined to retain that height is not explanatory, and rather that there are other more relevant other factors for who wins, like party flipping.

Your thoughts?

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