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How Much Do Looks Play a Part in Picking Presidential Winners?

Does a presidential candidate's physical attributes determine how he or she will be perceived by the public? If so, how? Emily Hoerner of IowaWatch.org investigates.

By EMILY HOERNER
IowaWatch.org Staff Writer

Your mother always warned you not to judge a book by its cover.

But, according to some experts, Americans may be doing just that.

They say Americans care what their leaders look like, and some physical attributes — such as height and strength — might influence who enters the presidential race.

As the current crop of presidential hopefuls vie for attention, little notice has been paid to physical appearance. Some media coverage has focused on female candidates, like U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, over the costs of maintaining a perfect appearance. But less attention is directed at male candidates’ appearance.

“Come to think of it, appearance has always been a big factor [in elections], even before television,” said Doug Wead, a presidential historian and former special assistant to President George H. W. Bush.

From Wooden-Teeth to “An Ape,” Then Big Ears

He said physical importance goes all the way back to President George Washington. Writers often refer to Washington’s royal appearance as a sort of personal strength. However, Wead thinks Washington’s “regal bearing” may have had more to do with his bad teeth, which often made him reluctant to speak.

“I not only study and write about history, but I actually worked in the White House on senior staff,” he said. “And I can assure you that everything is considered ad nauseum, including the president’s appearance.”

Consider President Obama’s ears. They stick out. A long ways, and Wead thinks Obama consciously tries to hide them when he speaks.

“He almost always speaks directing his gaze from side to side, back and forth, rather than Reagan-esque looking directly at the camera,” he said.

Today, there may be an added importance to the president’s appearance because of new technologies, according to Jane Hampton Cook, a presidential historian and author of What Does the President Look Like?, a children’s book about how technology shapes presidential image.

“For years, a presidential candidate’s character, experience and reputation — not appearance — was the first and lasting impression,” she said. “Today, a candidate’s physical appearance is the first impression while his or her ideas, personality, attitudes and authenticity cement into a longer-lasting and vote-casting impression.”

Cook said most Americans didn’t know what Washington looked like unless they saw him in person. His first portrait wasn’t publicly displayed until his second term in office. But technology has changed everything.

It started with cartoons of presidents in the 1860’s, Cook said. Then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln was depicted in cartoons as a “sloppy, backwoods rail-splitter.”

The press often likened Lincoln to “an ape,” Wead said.

But then Mathew Brady, a prominent photographer mostly known for his Civil War photographs, printed a picture showing a distinguished-looking Lincoln dressed in a suit. That changed people’s minds, Cook said.

Lincoln later credited Brady with helping to elect him president.

“Photography was to Lincoln in 1860 what television was for John F. Kennedy in 1960,” Cook said.

Sweaty Face to Stuffing Face

Cook was referring to the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and fellow-presidential contender Richard Nixon. Nixon didn’t apply any make-up before the debate and began to sweat under the hot stage lights.

Sweat formed on his upper lip, whereas Kennedy looked calm, cool and collected.

Some, like Wead, said this may have cost Nixon the election.

Cook said other technologies, like radio for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, have also changed the impressions of presidents, making them seem more human and likable.

“Today, the ‘gee-whiz’ factor of social media is not seeing or hearing the president but in the frequency of hearing from him on demand through e-mail or an RSS feed on your iPhone,” she said.

Some presidential candidates, like former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, use social media sites like Twitter to share comments and campaign appearances. Romney has even “tweeted” photos sharing mundane moments with followers, like eating a Subway sandwich at an airport terminal. Some specific physical attributes matter as well, according to Gregg R. Murray, assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University.

Shopping At The “Big and Tall” Never Sounded So Good

Murray’s recent research paper looks into the way evolutionary tactics may effect who gets elected to positions like the presidency.

Murray said people are inclined to vote for leaders who look like they could win in a fight, leaders who are both taller and stronger.

“Let’s face it, if we go to war with another country, our president isn’t going to go to battle,” he said, pointing out the underlying irony of his findings.

In historic times, groups would form around leaders, and the bigger of the two combatants would generally win in a fight over resources, Murray said. This may carry to our elections even today.

There have been number of tall and strong candidates in the past. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and William Henry Harrison were all tall, Wead said. But it isn’t necessarily that the tallest or strongest candidate will win the election.

“What we find is people who are bigger than average are more willing to put themselves forward as candidates,” Murray said.

He noted that out of the current pack of caucus candidates, at least three or four are above average height.

The “Age Old” Question

Age can also factor into presidential races.

Candidates from President Ronald Reagan to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have taken jabs from opponents about their age, and that could also go back to these basic instincts.

A candidate may be intellectually sharp and stand “rod straight,” but perception of old age can still have an effectMurray said.

When former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., ran for president in the 1996 election, he was a war hero type but also an older man.

People don’t like to admit they are persuaded by appearances, Murray said, but these thoughts are still there.

But Cook said age may not determine everything.

“Reagan’s age was a factor in his candidacy,” she said. “[But] because he appeared youthful and vigorous and his ideas resonated with voters, he overcame the issue.”

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., is one of the older looking candidates in the 2012 election cycle and may be using tactics during personal interactions to change his image.

“He has sloped shoulders. When he talks he sort of wanders about,” Murray said. “He comes off as much more diminutive than six feet.”

“It’s very personal up in Iowa,” Murray said. “A lot of people actually see the candidates.”

This could have something to do with the amount of interest in Paul’s campaign in Iowa, Murray said.

Although an appearance of aging may be an asset, Wead believes younger candidates like Kennedy and President Theodore Roosevelt have also held appeal in the past. President Grover Cleveland, who was married to a younger woman, had a “cult” following as well.

“The American people are fickle. [Age preference] depends on their mood,” he said. “But sure, generally [Americans] have loved the younger presidents and their families.”

The Uglies, the “Big Boned,” and the Little Ladies

Alice Ealgy, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, said physical appearance primes citizens’ expectations of candidatesand attractiveness often conveys social success and confidence.

According to Cook, hairstyles, hand gestures or accents can distract voters. A candidate with a particularly “slick” look can come across as a used car salesman. However, strong convictions and a smile may overcome less desirable physical features, she said.

“When a dialect distracts, charisma can charm,” Cook said. “[President] Bill Clinton was a master at this.”

Race is another recently highlighted physical attribute of two caucus candidates, former pizza magnate Herman Cain and Obama. But after the 2008 election, race plays a less important role, she said.

Gender, on the other hand, still effects judgement of candidates. Ealgy said women candidates often violate society’s expectations and values.

“Women who are ‘too assertive,’ or ‘too competent,’ in masculine domains are going against the expectations for women, and can be disliked on that basis,” she said.

Shows like Saturday Night Live parodied Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as cold, robotic and manly.

On the opposite end, Palin focused on being a mother and didn’t hide her femininity during her 2008 vice presidential bid, Cook said.

“I had friends in 2008 who were uncomfortable with the idea of a mother of a young child also serving as vice president. They weren’t prejudice,” she said. “Instead they were also mothers of young children and couldn’t see themselves as vice president.”

Because America has not yet seen a female in the White House, candidates like Bachmann have forced voters to think about the presidency in a different way, she said.

As problems of obesity plague many of Americans, heavier candidates undergo increased scrutiny.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has received criticism about his weight, and some questioned# whether he was too overweight to get elected.

“A voter who is physically fit and places a premium on nutrition and healthy eating may have a harder time relating to a candidate who is overweight,” Cook said.

But with one third of America overweight, she said heavier voters may sympathize with obese candidates.

Although age, gender, race, and physical appearance obviously have an effect on the presidency and possibly who runs for the position, Cook warned against betting the whole election on candidates appearance.

“Certainly a candidate’s appearance affects the way voters initially perceive them, but this can be overcome,” she said. “Authenticity trumps physical qualities.”

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