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Obese candidates have little chance in U.S. elections

Harold Mandel's picture
An image of a thin and fit President Obama

It has been suspected by many people ever since the founding of the United States that to be successful as a political candidate one of the most important factors is you have to look good. It appears that obese candidates are scorned by the typical American voter as representing something very undesirable. A positive assessment of the trend to elect thin and fit candidates to political office in the USA could be that Americans want their political leaders to be healthy and to evoke images of being healthy.

Researchers have found obese political candidates have been largely absent from the pool of candidates in elections reported Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal. The researchers used data from the 2008 and 2012 US Senate elections in order to investigate the relationship between candidate size and candidate selection and election outcomes. Candidates were considered to be obese, overweight, or normal weight.

Pictures which were captured from candidate web sites were used to have participants rate the size of candidates in the primary and general US Senate elections. The researchers searched for evidence of bias directed against overweight and obese candidates and whether or not gender and election information have a moderating effect on that relationship.

It was found that obese candidates were largely absent from the pool of candidates who were in both the primary and general elections. There was also an underrepresentation of overweight women, but not of overweight men. In support of the hypothesis of the researchers that there is bias against overweight candidates, it was observed that heavier candidates generally received a lower share of the vote than their thinner counterparts. It was also observed the larger the size difference was between the candidates, the larger the vote share discrepancy.

These findings have significant social implications for the American political scene. Due to the bias directed against obese political candidates as much as 33 percent of the adult US population are likely to find themselves excluded from being elected to a major political office. It is felt that more research is necessary to understand the process by which obese candidates are not accepted to the candidate pool and the cognitions which underly the biases which are directed against overweight candidates.

The study which was co-authored by a Michigan State University weight-bias expert found that overweight political candidates generally receive fewer votes than their thinner opponents reports Michigan State University. Mark Roehling, professor of human resources at Michigan State University, says previous research has found weight discrimination in various sectors such as:

1: Schools

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2: Businesses

3: Entertainment

4: Other facets of American society

However, this is the first scientific investigation which has looked into whether that bias extends to the outcomes of elections. Roehling said it was found weight had a dramatic effect on voting behavior. He also noted that the greater size disparity which existed between candidates, the greater the vote share was found to be for the thinner candidate.

Prior to becoming a university professor Roehling was a human resources manager at a Fortune 100 corporation and a civil attorney with a specialization in employment cases dealing with such issues as wrongful discharge and discrimination. He worked with his wife, Patricia Roehling, a psychology professor at Hope College, on this study.

Roehling highlighted that obese men and women were not as likely to get on the ballot in the first place. In a consideration of simply being overweight, women were underrepresented on the ballot, although men were not. This finding was consistent with previous research which shows men who are slightly heavy generally do not experience discrimination of the same degree as slightly overweight women.

However, when it came down to actually voting, both male and female candidates whether they were obese or simply overweight, received a lower share of the total vote than their thinner opponents. Roehling says this study offers evidence that the bias and discrimination which exists against the overweight and obese which has been documented in the areas of employment, education, health care and social situations is also seen in the electoral process in the United States.

This all makes us wonder whether the general public is casting roles for what they see as Hollywood styled real life movies or selecting political candidates whom they hope will actually govern the country well when they vote. As I have mentioned it would be nice to think that one of the primary motives for this voting behavior is that the American public is actually in search of healthy candidates who want their countrymen to also be healthy. After all being obese and overweight are actually medical conditions. To determine if good health for all is really the issue at stake here, or whether the American elections are simply serving as glorified beauty contests for men and women, further investigations of voter sentiments are needed.