Is Eye Color the Key to the White House?

Despite Fred Thompson‘s so-so performance in his first presidential debate, and despite his serious lag on InTrade (Giuliani, 39; Romney, 24; Thompson, 19.5), the blogger Noele Kensut is calling for Thompson to win the White House.

Why? Because he has blue eyes.

Eye color is one trait, Kensut writes at Mijka Samora‘s Reality Journal, that every president since Richard Nixon has had in common. Their opponents, meanwhile, usually have had dark eyes. I trust Kensut on this fact — though I must say, I almost never notice the color of a person’s eyes, at least not men.

But maybe that’s the point: maybe it’s women voters who do notice, and care, and put the blue-eyed candidate over the top. And maybe it’s not a coincidence that a female blogger noticed this pattern.

Could it be that blue eyes provide a similar advantage for men that blonde hair does for women? As we wrote in Freakonomics, blonde women (whether natural or not) do far better on online dating sites than non-blondes. And the experimental economist John List has shown that blonde women outperform all other candidates when it comes to soliciting charitable donations.

Here is the key to Kensut’s argument:

Today only 1 in every 6 Americans, or 16.7% of the population, has blue eyes. This percentage has been dropping in part due to immigration from non-European countries. A 2002 Loyola University study found that as many as 50% of Americans born in 1900 had blue eyes. The choice of an American with blue eyes for President may signal a voter preference for someone with deeper roots in America, vs. a relative newcomer.

Kensut predicts that Thompson will eventually beat out John Edwards, who also has blue eyes, because Thompson is “taller and more rugged.”

FWIW, if I were a betting man and had to place a bet today, even money, on who will win next November, I’d go with the candidate I’ve been picking for the past six months: Mitt Romney, LDS membership and all.

And you?


I think blue eyes are common among presidents because blue eyes are common among fair-skinned Anglo's. We don't elect many French, Italian or Slavic whites (who are less likely to be blue-eyed).

Also, I don't think there any any numbers that show that women are more likely to vote for the eventual winner then are men, so that would throw that theory out the window. If anything, Women's votes are generally regarded as 'up for grabs' regardless of political affiliations (women are viewed as being more politically fluid and less party-bound than men) and whoever caters best to the selected "women's issues" of a particular election can take the votes.


Hey Dubner,
Ask Levitt what he thinks about data mining.


Yeah, just like Chris Mathews likes to say Fred T has "Carry Grant" rugged looks. Um....OK - on what planet? Can we at least get a media story-line that makes any kind of sense? Can we at least get a lead actor if we are going for a pretend leader? As for Mitt winning I think his religion in combination with an easy comparision to a "flip flopping" upper crust MA Pol is more the issue - looks aside.

Looking at simple poll data and right-track wrong-track (or Bush numbers for that matter) its a shock to see anyone calling things for a Republican. I would like Edwards to win (promises more policy - but its all talk from all of the at this point, but heck if they aren't even promising it they sure as heck aint going to deliver it), but see Clinton or Obama as more likely. Huckabee would seem to be the Republican that actually has almost all of the correct stands for the party (is there a funny name thing trend?). I really can't even imagine a Republican winning the Republican primary with their "flaws" (as percieved by one of the 2 - 3 major parts of the Republican voting blocks). Ron Paul does have that big following growing and took in 5 million in Q3!

If we do elect a president that could not even get a supporting actor role for a Regean film then its time to move out. Just what we need another actor that can memorize most of what is written on an index card...execpt small details like the Soviet Union does not exist. And to follow up on our current VP one who made his bones via the corruption of Watergate, just like Fred the Nixon mole.


Dr. Troy Camplin

Blue eyes is an infant trait, meaning we trust and want to care for someone with blue eyes. Neoteny strikes again!


Politics aside, I'd heavily dispute this assumption. I went back and checked images of the presidents, and many of their eyes looked dark until I looked at a zoomed-in, high-resolution image. The only president whose eye colors I could have said off the top of my head were Jimmy Carter's and GWB's (though I thought the latter's was brown). I simply don't believe that eye color is visible enough on TVs and grainy news photos (those few times they're in color) for eye color to even be noticeable.

Nonetheless, that so many presidents had blue eyes seems statistically highly improbable. This is more likely caused by, rather than a cause of, Americans wanting candidates to have deep roots in America. The blogger asserts that eye color is getting darker as a result of immigration, and that the fraction of blue-eyed people has been dropping over the years. That candidates were born 50-70 years ago and are unlikely to have recent/non-European immigrant ancestors would go a long way toward explaining that.



The blue eyes thing doesn't hold up statistically. There have been three blue vs brown match ups: Dukakis v. Bush the elder, Dole v. Clinton, and Gore V. Bush the younger. If we assume no bias by eye color than there's a 50/50 chance that the blue eyed candidate will be elected. That works out to 1 in 8 chance that it happened by, well, chance. The same odds as flipping heads on a coin three times. It can easily happen with a fair coin.

The odds go to 1 in 4 if you eliminate Gore since he won a majority of the popular vote. Hardly an indicator of bias.


I'll play along. Let's say that blue eyes has something to do with presidential elections. The reason need not be because of how we view the candidate (we subconsciously like blue eyes?). Perhaps it is just correlation of growth (I think that is the right phrase). Blue eyes may just be correlated with better presidential skills--we vote for the "skills" (so-called!), which happen to also be accidentally correlated with blue eyes in genetic development.

Or blue eyes have nothing to do with elections, and someone is just trying to really stick it to us brown-eyed people (sounds like a familiar psychological experiment with children....)


I have an even more interesting statistic. All of our presidents have been male and white.


One could actually instinctively prefer or trust more a blue-eye person, even without noticing, no?


if blue eyes == deep roots in america and if dark eyes == newer american, it might be possible that those who are newer americans themselves would prefer the dark eyed candidates. add this into the fact that the number of newer americans is increasing faster than the number of deep roots americans, and i predict that in after some unspecified number of years, there will be a sea-change and blue eyed candidates will be virtually unelectable.

but there is always the sticky wicket of the electoral college and the geographic distribution of deep roots voters and newer american voters...


They haven't elected a Senator since before Nixon either (i think JFK was the last one)...

...for 'someone with deeper roots in America' read 'someone white and WASP-ish' because very few people have deeper roots in America than African-Americans... is the advent of color TV a driver of conservative trends in politics? An image-obsessed, media-led society does seem to be making an unhealthy number of important decisions based on superficial, irrelevant appearances that just happen to coincide with a conservative social model.

Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

And what are the odds that you are going to have a 50% chance of picking a blue-eyed candidate, if selection is truly random?

I encourage everyone here to read some evolutionary psychology. It has gone a long way to explaining many seemingly odd human behaviors -- and most of our seemingly normal ones.


Maybe the fact that you rarely notice the eye colour is what makes it so efficient in convincing you. If a person were handicapped or of a different skin colour, off course you would use your conscience to overcome the influence such an unsubtle physical attribute might have on your judgement because your conscience tells you that you should be unprejudiced. But something you apparently barely notice and were you are not paying attention to being unprejudiced such as eye colour or slight height differences might overcome your conscious barriers and thereby actually influence your decision much more than the big factors (just a theory...sorry no data)


I read where 1/6 of the US population is blue-eyed. Using the above argument of having to have white ancestry a long time in the country to be "trusted" and also looking to the fact German ancestry is the most commonly reported ancestry next to Irish in the country, I would argue that it narrows down your choice to mostly blue.

I see nothing exceptional in having blue eyes, even though I have them, my daughters have them and everyone in my immmediate family has them. I married a woman with brown eyes and have trusted her enough to spend my life with her and have children with her- and not 4-8 years more like 20+.


Shame on you people, making a political issue of Romney's Mormonism! That's a horrible insult to Mormons, whose 55% support for Romney is five times the national average simply because of their traditional love for Massachusetts politicians.


If you think Romney can win, maybe it's because you don't know many evangelical Christians. As liberal folks, I think it's easy to quickly categorize all these folks as "conservative Christians", but I actually think this group is perhaps the most likely to have anti-Mormon bias on the basis that Mormons are not "true Christians" (at least this was the case in the quite-conservative town where I grew up). This all added to the fact that Romney is going to have a hard time explaining his pro-gay rights/abortion record to this group of voters (who I think will care about flip-flopping on these key values issues more than most might) is going to be a real problem with this group. I think it's hard to see a Republican victory without evangelical Christians coming out hard--I don't think they'll vote for the Dem, I think they won't be motivated to come out or they go hard for some third party like disillusioned Nader voters.



Of course religion matters. It is the lens through which most people view the world.

Reagan was a premillennialist (sometimes called "Armageddon Theology"). Premill is a theological position. It also likely affected the way he viewed Israel's role in world politics, the environment, etc.

It is VERY important to know if the person for whom I am voting believes a terrible war resulting in the destruction of the planet is inevitable AND NECESSARY. If someone believes that it's "all going to burn anyway," would that not color the way the approach climate change, the environment, etc? If this is just a waiting room for yonder glory, does that not greatly affect your view of the world?

SHOULD religion matter? If it directly impacts what a candidate believes about important issues, it's not a question of "should." It does matter.

Sam Page

Fascinating piece, Dubner.

I think Clinton will win, but it will be by the very skin of her teeth.

And, I happen to agree with you that Romney will be the eventual Republican nominee, as he has the "moral standing" to challenge the Clintons.


I had previously noticed a similar pattern here at work. At least 90% of the managers here (a defense contractor, for what its worth), and a large number of the senior engineers that I work with have blue eyes. This seems statistically improbable on its own, especially when you factor in that there are a higher percentage of Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Korean employees - groups with lower rates of blue eye color - in the engineering sector than in the population at large.

Jonny Q

I'd also bet on Ron Paul.