With ho-hum contests such as state controller, treasurer and insurance commissioner facing voters in next week’s primary election, it’s understandable that many of us will not be up on the candidates’ experience, issues and character.
This year, we may be relying instead on our innate appreciation of a candidate’s strong jaw or flat cheekbones, the professionalism in her high neckline or the trust in his Windsor knot.
The newly designed California Ballot Pamphlet, which was mailed to voters earlier this month, has photos of the candidates in statewide election races displayed like Godiva chocolates, their faces aligned neatly down the left side of each page.
For the first time in California, we can actually see what our choice looks like and whether they are old or young, homely or handsome.
Proponents say it’s a wonderful equalizer in campaigns where a well-heeled candidate buys media exposure while a minor opponent labors away in obscurity.
But critics say this trend--popular now in a handful of West Coast states--threatens to tarnish voting practices by encouraging befuddled voters to choose based on beauty rather than brains, on style over substance.
“The state is presenting (voters) with a piece of information which is. . .non-relevant,” said Edmond Constantini, a political science professor at UC Davis.
The California electorate may simply skip the hard work and decide on the basis of who looks trustworthy and competent, said Shawn Rosenberg, a political scientist at UC Irvine.
“Much of this occurs on an almost subconscious level. You just all of a sudden have a feeling about the person,” said Rosenberg, who has analyzed political images and their impact.
Rosenberg said people are tempted to make overriding judgments based on a combination of small physical features.
A candidate with almond-shaped eyes, thin lips, flat cheekbones and a broad face--and for men, an ever-so slight tilt to the head in a photo- graph--has an image that carries more wallop that a political philosophy or even party affiliation.
As part of an ongoing study, Rosenberg has sifted through the results of hundreds of people rating hundreds of different photographs to learn what facial features are appealing. Then he distributed campaign flyers and ballots to test the effect of physical features rated positive or negative.
He found that a candidate’s looks could account for four to eight percentage points in the vote tally--clearly a margin that could win or lose an election.
The simple fact was that many voters were mystified by political issues and desperately wanted some simple sign posts to guide them in their decision-making, Rosenberg said.
“The world is complex, and people’s thinking about it is not. Now all of a sudden every voter has an additional source of information, which is the ballot pamphlet, and what they tend to do is, even on the basis of a single photograph, come to rather clear judgments,” Rosenberg said.
“This translates rather directly into their sense of ‘Is this the kind of person they want to represent them?’ ”
The man who set into motion countless camera shutters for the new ballot pamphlet was Tony Miller, the acting secretary of state who authorized spending about $500,000 to include a photograph and 100-word statement from each candidate.
One of those pictured is Miller, who is running for secretary of state while serving as replacement for March Fong Eu. She left office in February to take an ambassadorship to Micronesia.
Reactions to Miller’s new pamphlet were mixed. Kam Kuwata, campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said a pamphlet photo for a high-profile candidate like her was no big deal. But he submitted one anyway.
Others took it more seriously. One political consultant, who Miller refused to name, told him that his candidate was using focus groups to pick the best picture.
All candidates submitted statements--self-laudatory remarks sprinkled with dire predictions and plenty of italics for emphasis. The few who declined to provide a picture were left with a rather formidable white hole next to their names and the observation: “NO PHOTO SUBMITTED.”
Glen J. Dulac, a Huntington Beach Republican running for insurance commissioner, thought the photo a silly idea. His face will remain a mystery to voters.
“If people are going to just vote on appearances like they do on the presidential election, then maybe I don’t want to hassle with the job,” Dulac said, adding as afterthought, “I’m not an ugly guy or anything.”
Miller said he wrestled with whether the photos would overshadow the statements. “I was concerned about the possibilities of racism, ageism, sexism and ugly-ism,” he said.
But Miller said he thought it more important to give no-name candidates a chance at greater exposure. “It’s the less well-funded candidate who has no opportunity to get his or her image out there,” he said. “I think the voters connect with a candidate that they can visualize.”
And the state ballot pamphlet does indeed offer voters a potpourri of physical styles from which to choose: candidates with jacket and tie, no jacket, no tie, smiling with lots of teeth, smiling with no teeth, smirking, squinting, wrinkling and appearing out-of-focus.
Frank Joseph Anthony Mele, a Sacramento research engineer angling for superintendent of public instruction, was so grateful for the exposure that he sent in a picture of himself in tuxedo and white bow tie. “I (always) wear a bow tie,” Mele said. “It’s just a thing with me.”
One gubernatorial candidate from the Green Party, seaweed harvester John Lewallen, is even wearing a stocking cap and staring at something off-camera.
Said Lewallen: “I guess it would be like Gandhi in India. He wore the clothes of the common people.”
Political consultants, the hired guns who make careers shaping candidate images, were of course pleased with the photo idea.
“What you’re trying to convey with these is the most energetic and warmest picture that you can,” said Harvey Englander, a Costa Mesa-based consultant working for secretary of state-candidate Michael Woo. “You try to do that old thing of getting a photograph where the eyes are the keys to the soul.”
Clothing can also send a message. “You try not to wear a jacket to prove you’re a hard worker,” said Englander, referring to the casual look of Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who is running for governor.
Hayden dodged the issue when asked about it. “I decided in February that I would not be emphasizing my looks,” he joked.
And some thought attorney general candidate Tom Umberg, a Democratic assemblyman from Garden Grove, looked a little too somber, especially sitting on the same page with three other grinning Democrats. “I’d try to lighten up a little bit more,” said longtime Los Angeles political handler Joe Cerrell. “This guy looks dour.”
Umberg’s explanation for the serious expression: “Attorney general is a very serious job.”
But Miller’s decision to publish candidate photographs may have its greatest impact in his own contest against two minority candidates, Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) and former Los Angeles City Councilman Woo.
Many observers were quick to note that without the photographs, the fact that Moore is black would not have been apparent. Although Moore and Miller agree this should make no difference, veteran observers say race has always been and remains today a divisive issue in this state.
“There are people in California who don’t vote for women, who don’t vote for African Americans, who don’t vote for Latinos,” Cerrell said.
But race aside, Moore and many others agree that her picture in the pamphlet is, very simply, unflattering. Moore said she was rushed to have her photograph taken, was having a “bad hair day,” and couldn’t seem to get her smile right.
“There was something that looked like a string or something hanging down that had me looking up. I was making a funny face,” Moore said. “We’ve had people call in and say that I ought to sue.”
She hopes the picture will have little or no impact and that voters instead will focus on her extensive experience, lengthy record of legislation and involvement with complex political issues.
But Rosenberg says those are just the kind of details that lose most voters. He believes, according to his research, that people may very well decide that primary based on the photographs. And using the criteria established from his research, Rosenberg ticks off what works and what doesn’t for Moore: positive on eye shape and jawline, but negatives on eye brows, lips, smile, chin shape, hair and jewelry.
By comparison, the boyish-faced Miller looks like an angel, with positive ratings on eye shape, eyebrows, cheekbones, lips, smile, a tilt of his head and a tasteful graying at the temples. “I mean there’s very little that is negative,” Rosenberg said.
Woo, the third candidate, rated right between the other two, Rosenberg said, with positive smile, eyes and clothing; but problematic cheekbones, jawline, and eyebrows. Woo also appears too youthful. “The older for men the better,” Rosenberg said.
“In Gwen Moore’s case (the impact) is probably pretty certainly negative if this was the only thing that people saw,” he said. “And in regard to the secretary of state race, most people are not going to see much. So this may prove to be an unfortunately influential picture.”
Miller shrugged off the criticism. “Whether the academics think that the voters need to know (a candidate’s appearance)--voters want to know,” he said. “It’s. . .truth in advertising.”