Thursday, May 15, 2008

Obama by voice, McCain by phenotype

During a recent review of literature on nonverbal behavior, I ran across some interesting factoids that have implications for the presidential race.

Voters tend to prefer candidates that fall into the mesomorph phenotype. During the past fifty years, every time an ectomorph (tall, thin) has run against a mesomorph (proportional - not fat or thin) the mesomorph has won. Think John Kerry (ecto) against George Bush (meso). Researchers in numerous studies have improved upon Prof. Sheldon's initial work on phenotypes in the 1940's, and shown that while personality types do not necessarily match body types as he claimed, often people's perceptions of others are based on the other person's shape. Endos (fat, round) are perceived as jolly and contented, ectos are perceived as intellectual and aloof, while mesos are perceived as attractive, confident leaders.

This disadvantages Sen. Obama, who is clearly an ectomorph, while Sen. John McCain is a very proportional mesomorph. In fact, a lot of the recent criticism of Obama is in line with the common perceptions researchers have found people have about endomorphs: they are detached, aloof, reflective, cautious, sensitive, withdrawn. Many people are not connecting to Obama, and I'll bet they can't quite tell you why exactly, just a feeling that he is a bit of an intellectual snob. Of course some of this is racism, sure, and some of it is identity politics, but the subconscious assessment of body type and how it shapes people's perceptions should not be disregarded.

That said, however, Obama has a clear advantage in voice quality. It appears that in every matchup of the last forty years, the candidate who had the most resonant, deeper and more expressive voice, won. In 2002, researchers Gregory and Gallagher from Kent State University conducted audio-spectral analysis of 19 presidential debates including Kennedy/Nixon, Carter/Ford, Reagan/Carter, Reagan/Mondale, Bush/Dukakis, Clinton/Bush, Clinton/Dole, and Bush/Gore. They found that the candidate who registered a more dominant fundamental voice frequency in the debates won the popular vote (this means Gore in 2000). Since voters favor voices that convey power and leadership, this clearly favors Sen. Obama, whose voice is unparalleled in modern politics.

Also, there is another characteristic in Obama's favor. Research indicates there is statistically significant discrimination against persons of short stature. This bodes ill for John McCain. If he wins the Presidency, at 5' 7", he will be the shortest President in over a hundred years, since William McKinley. Barack Obama, at 6'1" is actually just a little taller than the average height for twentieth century presidents, 6' and 1/2".

McCain seems to have the biggest hurdles in the nonverbal perception arena. While Obama could conceivably start a weight program and eat more to fill out a bit, McCain can't hope to change his height or his voice.

The implications for campaign strategies are clear. If Obama's people are smart, they will try to place him right next to McCain as often as they can. Also, they could manipulate the video on his ads to widen him a bit and project a mesomorph image. McCain's staff will likely add resonance in the vocal channel on his ads and show him standing above people as often as possible. Look for these and other subtle nonverbal approaches to building these candidates images as we progress toward the election.

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