About fifty-three years ago, the US presidential elections were determined by the content that citizens read in the papers and heard on the radio. They learned platforms, histories, and other general information and casted a vote all while only at most seeing a cold, inanimate photo of each candidate. Who the candidate was on paper mattered much more than what they looked like.
In 1960, this all changed.
Prior to the 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, Kennedy was relatively unknown. The young, senator from Massachusetts seemingly had no chance against then Vice-President Nixon. However, this debate was unlike any other previously held because it was televised. For the first time, people could see the candidates and get a sense of their personality and character. On television, Nixon appeared pale, nervous, and sickly. His posture erred on the side of sloppy and slumped. Kennedy on the other hand was calm, collected, and connected with the audience. He stood and spoke upright and confidently during the debate. Kennedy won over the American people that night by being the image of a president and eventually solidified this win on Election Day—and the American people could see that.
The 1960 presidential debate fundamentally changed the way we assess presidential elections today because it is no longer just about having the capacity of being a good president—the candidate has got to look the part for the American people!
Now by no means do I mean to reduce the presidential race to a mere high school homecoming queen contest. To our credit, most people give more weight to each candidate’s platforms, records, and general capabilities than what they look like. Nevertheless, the increasingly dominant role of television and social media in politics has increased the importance of physical appearance, personality, and esthetics has heightened the necessity of good presentation in the media.
In 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton charmed the world with his tall, handsome stature. Furthermore, he appealed to the MTV generation with appearances like this:
When pitted against Bob Dole, Clinton fit the bill (admittedly, pun intended) for a president and was able to secure newer demographics simply from having a more esthetically pleasing media image.
According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, people have a tendency to associate taller stature with authority and success. Thinking about it, how many short presidents can you think of in the last fifty years? (James Madison was the shortest to date at 5’4”).
Youth also arguably plays a role in voter judgment. In 2008 election Obama emerged as the fresh-faced candidate. Along with the fervor around his “Change” media campaign and handsomeness was the fact that he was an amazing orator. People fell in love with the tall, lean, mesmerizing man on stage at the 2008 Iowa caucus, the Democratic national convention, as well as in countless debates. His fresh, youthful look trended all over the internet and the securing him fans that made the world even more aware of his attractiveness:
Further helping Obama’s image was the comparison to McCain:
Funny photos aside, McCain had a tendency to look older and frailer on camera. Unfortunately for McCain and other older candidates, wisdom and years of experience are undermined with the appearance of having as much. Although it is a morbid thought, it is a fairly rational conjecture that people look at older candidates and fear presidential sickness (or death) that could infuse instability into the country. Therefore, people may simple feel more confident when looking at a youthful, robust candidate.
Turning to the Republican presidential candidates, frontrunner Mitt Romney has most often been viewed as having the most presidential appeal with good looks, height, and crowd-pleasing stage presence in the debates (although Ron Paul ironically has a larger contingency of young followers).
Looking towards the 2012 election, it will be interesting to see if people will be able to separate the values and ideologies perpetrated by each candidate from the images they perpetuate in the media.