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Gregg Murray, Texas Tech: Tallest Candidate Wins Majority of US Presidential Elections

Ted Landphair

October 31, 2011

When it comes to voter preference, a candidate’s positions on the issues count. But some may check a name on a ballot for a more primal reason: the candidate’s stature.

Researchers at Texas Tech University suggest that height affects voters’ preference in political leaders, possibly for instinctive reasons going back to caveman days.

The findings were published in the journal Social Science Quarterly by political science professor Gregg Murray and graduate student David Schmitz.

"A near-universal fear of snakes and a preference for unhealthy fatty foods likely evolved from a time when snakes were a common threat and caloric intake was uncertain,” Murray says. “We believe similar traits exist in politics."

The authors point to what’s called the "big man" tribal leadership of many ancient societies, as well as the impact of physical strength on status in the animal kingdom. And they note that the taller candidate has won 58 percent of U.S. presidential elections between 1789 and 2008.

Abraham Lincoln, at 193 centimeters, was one of our tallest presidents. He loomed over his second opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, who stood just 163 centimeters.

The authors asked 467 American and foreign-born college students to draw a figure that represented their concept of a "typical citizen" and an "ideal national leader" before being asked to draw both figures together. Sixty-four percent drew the leader taller than the citizen.

The researchers then asked the students to assess themselves as leaders and potential political candidates. The results revealed a statistically significant association between height and the students’ self-assessment as leaders.

Researcher Schmitz writes that "culture and environment alone cannot explain how a preference for taller leaders is a near-universal trait we see in different cultures today, as well as in societies ranging from ancient Mayans, to pre-classical Greeks and even animals."

At 185 centimeters - 6'1" - Barack Obama was noticeably taller than his 173-centimeer (5'8") Republican opponent, John McCain, in 2008. But at least two of his potential opponents in 2012 - former governors Rick Perry and Mitt Romney - are as tall, or a little taller, than the president.

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