Has anyone ever made a study of the comparative heights of winners and losers in elections, and if so, what were the results? –Wistfully, Eli “Shorty” Pindsey, Chicago
Well, being a dwarf sure didn’t help that little Greek fella. And no question everybody in politics thinks being tall is an advantage. Five-foot-nine-and-a-half-inch Jimmy Carter’s handlers went to great lengths to prevent him from having to stand next to six-foot-one-inch Gerald Ford during the 1976 presidential debates. But the data on this question is notoriously flaky. U. of Chicago statistics professor William Kruskal, who used to keep track of this stuff in his spare time, says he never found anybody whose height estimates could be relied upon–particularly when it came to the heights of the losers in earlier elections.
That caveat aside, various sources do claim that the taller candidate usually wins. For example, in Language on Vacation (1965), word and number buff Dmitri Borgmann claimed that in the 19 U.S. presidential elections between 1888 and 1960, the taller candidate won the popular vote all but once, when six-foot-two-inch Franklin Roosevelt beat six-foot-two-and-a-half-inch Wendell Willkie in 1940. In 1888 five-foot-eleven-inch Cleveland beat five-foot-six-inch Harrison at the polls but was cuffed in the electoral college, and in 1896 and 1900 both candidates were the same height.
We glean further insight on this issue from a delightful book called The Height of Your Life (1980) by Ralph Keyes (five feet, 7.62 inches). Keyes notes that a survey of the U.S. Senate in 1866 found the average height of the members to be five-ten-and-a-half, well above-average for men at the time. Keyes’s own survey (in 1978) of 27 senators found the average height had risen to six feet, 0.33 inches, 3.33 inches taller than the average American male. A similar survey of 31 governors found the average height to be six feet, 0.46 inches.
So case closed, right? Yeah, that’s what Oliver Stone thought. Consider for a moment, however, an alternative theory of presidential electoral success–the Longer Name Hypothesis, which is also discussed in the Borgmann book. Of the 22 elections between 1876 and 1960, the candidate with more letters in his last name won the popular vote 20 times. In two cases, Tilden-Hayes in 1876 and Cleveland-Harrison in 1888, the winners of the popular vote lost in the electoral college. In 1916 Wilson and Hughes had the same number of letters in their names, so the voters obviously chose on the basis of the issues. The only time the longer-named candidate lost was in 1908, when Taft whomped Bryan. However, Taft weighed more than 300 pounds, and probably attracted votes by force of gravity alone.
The situation has been somewhat muddied in the seven presidential elections since 1960, with only one victory for the long-named candidate, five defeats, and one case in which both candidates had names of equal length. This just shows you the difficulty of doing good science when the facts won’t cooperate. As far as I’m concerned, the Longer Name Hypothesis remains at least as persuasive as the Longer Body Hypothesis. Until scientific measurements can be adduced for all dimensions of the presidential person (something that can surely be expected any day in light of the Thomas-Hill hearings), I think we must admit that the question remains open. Then again, if I were Michael Jordan contemplating my inevitable retirement from sports, I’d have to agree I had a promising choice of second careers.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.