Why Height and Physical Stature Play a Role in American Politics

Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress/Archive Photos/Getty Images

During one of the Republican presidential debates before the 2016 election, the web search company Google tracked what terms Internet users were searching for while watching on TV. The results were surprising.

The top search wasn't ISIS. It wasn't Barack Obama's last day. It wasn't tax plans.

It was: How tall is Jeb Bush?

The search analytics unearthed a curious fascination among the voting public: Americans, it turns out, are fascinated with how tall the presidential candidates are.

And they tend to vote for the tallest candidates, according to historic election results and research into voter behavior.

So, do the tallest presidential candidates always win?

Taller Presidential Candidates Get More Votes 

It's true: Taller presidential candidates have fared better through history. They haven't always won. But they were victorious in a majority of elections and the popular vote about two-thirds of the time, according to Gregg R. Murray, a Texas Tech University political scientist.

Murray's analysis concluded that the taller of the two major-party candidates from 1789 to 2012 won 58 percent of presidential elections and received the majority of the popular vote in 67 percent of those elections.

The notable exceptions to the rule include Democrat Barack Obama, who at 6 feet, 1 inch tall won the 2012 presidential election against Republican Mitt Romney, who was an inch taller.

In 2000, George W. Bush won the election but lost the popular vote to a taller Al Gore. 

Why Voters Favor Tall Presidential Candidates

Taller leaders are seen as stronger leaders, researchers say. And height has been particularly important in wartime. Consider Woodrow Wilson at 5 feet, 11 inches, and Franklin D.

Roosevelt at 6 feet, 2 inches. “In particular, during times of threat, we have a preference for physically formidable leaders,” Murray told ​​The Wall Street Journal in 2015.

In the research paper Tall claims? Sense and Nonsense About the Importance of Height of US Presidents, published in Leadership Quarterly, the authors concluded: 

"The advantage of taller candidates is potentially explained by perceptions associated with height: taller presidents are rated by experts as 'greater', and having more leadership and communication skills. We conclude that height is an important characteristic in choosing and evaluating political leaders."
 

"Height is associated with some of the same perceptions and outcomes as is strength. For example, individuals with taller stature are perceived as better leaders and attain higher status within a wide variety of modern political and organizational contexts."

Height of the 2016 Presidential Candidates

Here's how tall the 2016 presidential aspirants were, according to various published reports. Hint: No, Bush wasn't the tallest. And a note: the tallest president in history was Abraham Lincoln, who stood 6 feet, 4 inches - just a hair taller than Lyndon B. Johnson.

  • Republican George Pataki: 6 feet, 5 inches (quit the race)
  • Republican Jeb Bush: 6 feet, 3 inches (quit the race)
  • Republican Donald Trump: 6 feet, 3 inches
  • Republican Rick Santorum: 6 feet, 3 inches (quit the race)
  • Democrat Martin O'Malley: 6 feet, 1 inch (quit the race)
  • Republican Ben Carson: 5 feet, 11 inches
  • Republican Chris Christie: 5 feet, 11 inches (quit the race)
  • Republican Mike Huckabee: 5 feet, 11 inches (quit the race)
  • Republican Bobby Jindal: 5 feet, 10 inches (quit the race)
  • Republican Marco Rubio: 5 feet, 10 inches
  • Republican Ted Cruz: 5 feet, 10 inches
  • Republican John Kasich: 5 feet, 9 inches
  • Republican Rand Paul: 5 feet, 9 inches
  • Democrat Bernie Sanders: 5 feet, 8 inches
  • Democrat Hillary Clinton: 5 feet, 7 inches
  • Republican Carly Fiorina: 5 feet, 6 inches (quit the race)