Earlier in the week I missed a discussion between Danny Finkelstein (probably behind a paywall), Will Straw and various others about the Sunday Times/YouGov poll and whether the question about Ed Miliband being too ugly to be Prime Minister was a legitimate thing to ask about.
For those wishing to save time, my short answer is “hell, yes!”
Now the long answer. In one sense, it’s not really up to the pollster to judge. A pollster might refuse questions that are grossly tasteless or risk contempt of court, but generally speaking we don’t judge. Sure, I might like every question to be a highbrow academic one, but newspapers commission polls for journalistic reasons, not out of the goodness of their heart, and that means our fair share of “which dog does this politician most resemble” questions.
However, questions about a politicians looks are entirely legitimate, since it is an important factor in their electability. In his post Danny Finkelstein is right to point to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Robert Cialdini, but there here is also more direct empirical evidence, such as this paper from last year which based on a large scale US survey found people with little knowledge of politics but who watched a lot of TV were likely to be influenced by hte candidates’ appearances (which also includes a summary of other relevant recent research), or this paper (Free, but requires annoying registration) that found people’s judgement of which of two unknown candidates *looked* more competent predicted who actually won at a much greater rate than chance would suggest.
We might wish that people voted purely on dry policy and ideological preferences, but all the evidence is that they don’t. If factors like what politicians look like actually are very important, then it is right and proper that polls ask about them – our role is to reflect public opinion as it is, not as we would like it to be and, by extention, we should be investigating the factors that actually drive voting intentions, not those that we think should. If anything there are too many questions asked about the minutae of policies and not enough about party image and perceptions of the leaders.
The downside of the particular question in the poll is that it didn’t, in the end, really answer the question very well. We know from the other questions in the poll that Miliband’s appearance *is* an issue – 70% of people agreed that Miliband does “not look or sound like a possible Prime Minister”, including 79% of those people who said that he has the “right policies”.
However, 72% of people said that Ed Miliband wasn’t “too ugly” to be Prime Minister, so the question doesn’t really tell us much about what those 70% think is the problem with him. I’m not that surprised – just because appearance is actually important for a politician, it doesn’t mean the public recognise this. I think you’d be hard pressed to find people who actually admit to pollsters, or to themselves, that they are influenced by it – we think we are influenced by policies, ideologies, perceptions of trust and competence… even if subconsciously we are biased towards the taller candidate, or the one with the nicest hair.
The fact that 70% recognise that there is such a thing as not looking like a possible Prime Minister does at least suggest that polling on it isn’t a complete write-off, but so far we don’t know anything about why. Is it Ed Miliband’s looks, his mannerisms, his voice, the way he articulates his arguments, or just looking goofy in photos? I don’t know, but it’s a problem that is important for him to solve if he wants to be a success – and therefore something that polling should be exploring.
(For clarity, normally the Sunday Times poll is written by me, but I’m currently off on leave, so I didn’t actually write the question I’m defending!)