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Looks and Politics

Simply mentioning the words "hair" or "cleavage" in a discussion about the 2008 presidential election during the last couple of weeks was likely to spark an intense conversation.

Hair, of course, refers to former Sen. John Edwards' (D-N.C.) brilliant video send-up of the media's fascination with the fact that he once paid $400 for a haircut. The clip, which ran during the CNN/YoutTube debate on Monday night, has already been viewed 190,000 times -- far more than any of the other 30-second submissions by other candidates. In it, a series of hair shots are interspersed with scenes of war, poverty and the now infamous "Mission Accomplished" poster. The words "What Really Matters?" appear on the screen at the end of the video.

Cleavage is a reference to a story penned by the Post's Robin Givhan that examined the decolletage Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) displayed while giving a speech on the Senate floor recently. The article produced a fundraising e-mail from the Clinton campaign in which aide Ann Lewis called the piece "grossly inappropriate."

So why all the focus on fashion? Has the media this election already become more obsessed with how candidates look than with what they say? And just how detrimental is that focus to the political process?

Let's first debunk the idea that examining candidates physical appearance and style is anything new in modern American political reporting. The dawn of the television era in politics, beginning with the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, began the elevation and attention of candidate appearance. Is there any real political junkie out there who doesn't think the fact that Kennedy was a youthful, handsome man with a picture-perfect family didn't have a lot to do with his victory over the jowly and pale Nixon?

Or that Ronald Reagan's good looks and movie star persona didn't help his political star rise?

Or that the boyish good looks and down-home charm of Edwards -- occasionally referred to as the "Breck girl" during the 2004 campaign -- had absolutely nothing to do with his rapid political ascent?

Like it or not, a candidate's attractiveness affects how people vote, especially in the presidential race. Presidential elections are in many ways the most personal and intimate of all because a president -- unlike a state legislator, Congressman or Senator -- is almost certain to be a regular presence in American homes for at least four years. But even on downballot races, looks are often part of the debate. Rep. Brad Ellsworth's (D-Ind.) good looks became the talk of Washington during his successful 2006 race against Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.).

Shanto Iyengar, Professor of Communication and director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University, has done studies on how candidates' appearance affect voters' responses. In one study done in partnership with Iyengar demonstrated that incumbents or any candidate who gets a lot of media coverage may benefit from voters' natural affinity for familiar faces.

The appeal of a downright physically attractive candidate is obvious. But a candidate can be too good-looking as well -- leading voters to question whether he or she really has the ability to relate to them.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney -- known as "Matinee Mitt" for his movie star looks -- walks a fine line between using his looks as an entry point with voters and allowing his handsomeness to distance him from voters who think he is a little too good-looking to be believed.

There is no question that a candidate's appearance and style matters, consciously or not, to voters. How much attention the press should pay to such things is a different question.

Simply ignoring a candidate's looks is short-sighted, since reporters have an obligation to explore all factors that may have a major affect an election. On the other hand, too much focus on candidate appearance can make reporters easy targets for critics who bemoan the lack of focus on "substantive" issues.

In today's decentralized media world we are all -- in a sense -- reporters, pundits, observers, and media critics. So, how much focus should we give to candidate appearance? Here are a couple of ideas (and as always, we welcome your thoughts on this subject): It is probably not a good idea to give ourselves blanket prohibitions on what we should write about and what we should not. The reality is that many seemingly banal factors -- like how a candidate dresses or combs his hair (or doesn't) -- can come to be real issues in campaigns and can affect the way voters behave. In those cases, it is incumbent upon reporters to at least begin a conversation. However, to overly focus on aspects of candidate appearance that, on their own, show little potential to influence an election, and which generate little public interest, is to cross a the line of reportorial integrity.

Those are The Fix's musings on the subject -- what do you think?

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 30, 2007; 6:07 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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