The Inescapable Measuring Stick of Appearances

by Jim Geraghty

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

The Inescapable Measuring Stick of Appearances

The good folks at the Heritage Foundation had a particularly interesting Blogger Briefing Tuesday, discussing the “Vanity Factor” in modern politics. A lot of the discussion revolved around candidate appearances, and how many voters are gained or lost as a result of a candidate’s appearance in this era of celebrity politics.

Panelist S. E. Cupp noted that Mitt Romney’s looks actually worked against him — he looked like “the guy they cast to play the president in a movie, and looked plastic and inauthentic.” Panelist Keli Goff observed that there’s a window of attractiveness for political candidates, and that being too handsome or too pretty undermined their credibility — and that according to research, a female candidate whose attractiveness is remarked upon in press coverage almost always subsequently suffers in the polls.

Very few of us have the appearance we wish we had, and as a result, we often say we wished we lived in a society where others wouldn’t judge us on our appearance. But the flip side is that almost all of us judge other people based upon their appearance, consciously and subconsciously, for good and for ill. (Women are probably judged on their appearance more harshly, and of course, almost every Internet comment section consists of people viciously mocking the imperfections of people who are probably more attractive than they.) A lot of people believe that they have “good instincts” about judging others, and I can’t help but wonder how much of that is fueled by assessing their aesthetics.

People infer a lot about you, based upon your:

·      Tattoos. (Check out the comments on this Corner post discussing tattoos.)

·      Weight.

·      Facial hair.

·      Glasses. What’s the first thing a girl does in movie’s ugly-duckling-into-swan cliché? She removes her glasses and lets down her hair…

·      Hairstyle. Or lack of hair.

·      Height.

·      Complexion.

·      Accent.

·      Clothes.

·      Smoking.

I asked the panelists why we have this fairly rigid standard for appearances in politics, but less so in other areas of life. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and Richard Branson aren’t necessarily classically handsome, but they’re all variously widely respected and in many circles admired. They are (in Jobs’s case, were) entrusted with multimillion-dollar companies or in the case of Buffett, billion-dollar companies. Sure, some CEOs look like Ken Dolls, but clearly in the private sector, you can rise to the top without looking just right. The women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are all professional-looking and pleasant, but few are movie-star gorgeous or glamorous.

Cupp pointed out that a political figure is seen as a representation of the region or state that they serve, and thus is meant to put that place’s best foot forward. People know their congressman, senator, or governor will be representing them on the national stage, and thus they want their face in Washington to be a slightly better-looking version of themselves. People don’t feel that same sense of identification to a company.

Heritage’s Genevieve Wood pointed out that as much as some particularly high-profile or charismatic CEOs have become identified with their companies, the company’s product is still what most people associate with that company. When people hear “Apple,” they’re more likely to think of iPhones than Steve Jobs, and he was a particularly famous CEO.

For a politician, the product is government. And that explains quite a bit, when you think about it. To most of us, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is an accelerating tsunami of humiliation, a live-action cross between a John Candy comedy, a cartoon, and Behind the Music special about an out-of-control addiction. But up in Toronto, he’s still polling fairly well — 43 percent approval rating, and never below 40 percent despite admitting to smoking crack cocaine. He remains competitive in all of the hypothetical reelection campaign match-ups and will face the voters in October.

Ford’s defying political gravity in part because a lot of people think that despite the crack-smoking, he’s been a pretty good mayor. (“I’ll take, ‘Sentences I Never Thought I Would Write’ for 500, Alex.”) He eliminated a personal vehicle registration tax, reduced spending, privatized garbage collection in one neighborhood, reduced city staff through buyouts, and has added more city workers to the legal classification that denies their ability to strike (paramedics and city transit workers).

Exhibit B would be President Bill Clinton’s poll numbers during the Lewinsky scandal.

There may be a lesson in this, suggesting that voters may be more substance-based, and less appearance-based, than the media and consultants would suggest.

The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.