Presidential Image in the Media: How Important Is Attractiveness?

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:

Bill Clinton Playing Saxophone

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:

Obama Girl Crush

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.

 

About Dilan

Dilan is a junior in Davenport College double majoring in Political Science and African Studies.
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4 Responses to Presidential Image in the Media: How Important Is Attractiveness?

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  2. Sam says:

    Dilan, this is really interesting. What I’d also like to see is if attractiveness is as significant for male and female politicians. I’ve seen one study that seems to suggest that it is even more important for female politicians to be attractive relative to their male counterparts. Originally I wasn’t bothered by the fact that attractiveness plays a role in elections (it seemed sort of natural I suppose although it doesn’t make it right), but it is troubling that greater weight is given to the attractiveness of female candidates. It is an unfortunate reality that candidates cannot separate looks and charm from skill and intelligence, and even more unfortunate that there is a gender gap in this effect.

    • David says:

      Really great post, Dilan. Gladwell also mentions in that book the “Warren Harding Effect,” the idea that Harding was elected purely because he appeared presidential and professional, and it’s possible that this phenomenon played a role in elections even before Kennedy. Sam, I think your comment is particularly interesting because your concern about female candidate image already manifested itself in the Republican primaries back in August when Newsweek chose its controversial cover photo of Michelle Bachmann (Newsweek also was responsible for a similarly questionable image of Sarah Palin a few years back). Whether or not you think the image matches Bachmann’s political message, Slate highlighted the interesting point that Newsweek in particular had represented male GOP candidates with comparable political beliefs with fairly flattering images, thus alluding to what you were talking about.

      With regard to the remaining field, Romney is particularly interesting because, while he has the traditional handsome features that Dilan talked about, he also time-and-time-again shows how out of touch he is with the average citizen. It will be interesting to see how those two characteristics reconcile themselves, or if they do.

  3. Anna says:

    Great point, Dilan. Interestingly, Kennedy did not win over those who listened to the debate on the radio. A famous poll showed that Americans who watched the TV debate thought Kennedy had won while those who listened to the radio thought Nixon had won. While this difference in opinion between radio and TV viewers is widely cited as one of the best examples of how politicians’ appearance affects public opinion, the poll cannot prove causation. The TV viewers and radio listeners were self-selected groups, and most likely they had different overall political leanings to begin with. But it’s still a very interesting poll to consider, and I agree with you that attractive politicians probably gain more support.
    The Powers to Lead by Joseph Nye extensively analyzes how attractiveness affects politics. One of the most memorable studies Nye discusses was one that aimed to show that attractiveness may also increase confidence and nurture leaders. Job applicants were ranked based on their attractiveness by a group of experimenters. Employers who looked at resumes alone did not show a statistically significant preference for the more attractive applicants. But when employers conducted phone interviews, the attractive applicants fared much better – most likely because they exuded confidence.

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