By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - There may be a reason Mitt Romney is a front-runner in the Republican presidential nomination race that has nothing to do with his stance on immigration or Social Security, according to a study published on Tuesday.
It's his height.
Americans, whether they know it or not, prefer taller leaders, a preference that dates back to the dawn of the human race, said Texas Tech University political science professor Gregg R. Murray.
If Romney, who stands 6-feet 2-inches tall, becomes his party's nominee, he may have a secret advantage over the 6-feet 1-inch Barack Obama going into the 2012 election, just like Obama had over the 5-feet 8-inches John McCain in 2008, Murray said.
"In evolutionary times, when people traveled in small groups and people competed for resources, the argument was that, when the leader of the other group was a big guy, the feeling of the group was, 'Hey, maybe we don't want to compete with these people for resources,'" Murray told Reuters on Tuesday.
He said that even though this is an "irrational response" for 21st-century leadership selection, there is a "vestige of evolutionary history" involved in political decisions.
Recent presidents have been taller than the average American man (now 5-feet 9-inches), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are both 6-feet 2-inches, and Ronald Reagan was 6-feet 1-inch. Still, George W. Bush (just under 6-feet) was shorter than his two opponents (Al Gore, 6-feet 1-inch, and John Kerry, 6-feet 4-inches).
For the study, Murray asked nearly 500 students from both public and private universities, male and female, and from the United States and around the world, to draw their concept of a "typical citizen" and an "ideal national leader." Sixty-four percent drew the leader as taller than the citizen.
"Culture and environment alone cannot explain how a preference for taller leaders is a near-universal trait we see in different cultures today, as well as in societies ranging from ancient Mayans to pre-classical Greeks, and even animals," Murray said.
He said a preference for taller leaders reflects an "evolved psychological trait, independent of any cultural conditioning."
Although the preference for taller male leaders is present in both men and women, Murray said, the preference does not enter into subconscious decision-making when both candidates are women, or when a man and a woman are running against each other.
Political scientists have noticed this trend before. The taller candidate has been elected president 58 percent of the time since the 6-feet 1-inch George Washington was elected in 1789, Murray said.
"Some traits and instincts that may have been acquired through evolution continue to manifest themselves in modern life, seemingly irrationally," Murray said.
He said his is the first peer-reviewed study to test height preference. The results are published in the journal Social Science Quarterly.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said that voters like taller, authoritative candidates such as Romney and fellow Republican hopeful Herman Cain.
"It's the short, pudgy guys like Newt Gingrich that tend to have the trouble," Jillson said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)