With ho-hum contests such as those for 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, mailed to voters in early May, 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, black or white, 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 in a handful of West Coast states--threatens to tarnish voting practices by encouraging befuddled voters to choose based on style over substance.
“The state is presenting (voters) with a piece of information which is . . . non-relevant,” says 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, says Shawn Rosenberg, a political scientist at UC Irvine.
“Much of this occurs on an almost subconscious level. You just all of the sudden have a feeling about the person,” says Rosenberg, who has analyzed political images and their effect.
He says 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 photograph--has an image that carries more wallop than a political philosophy or even party affiliation, Rosenberg says.
As part of an ongoing study, Rosenberg has sifted through the results of hundreds of people rating hundreds of 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 signposts to guide them in their decision-making, Rosenberg says.
“The world is complex and people’s thinking about it is not. Now all of the 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,” he says.
“This translates rather directly into their sense of, is this the kind of person they want to represent them?”
The man who set countless camera shutters into motion for the new ballot pamphlet was Tony Miller, 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, who left office to become ambassador to Micronesia.
Reactions to Miller’s new pamphlet are mixed. Kam Kuwata, campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, says a pamphlet photo for a high-profile candidate such as Feinstein 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 says, adding as afterthought: “I’m not an ugly guy or anything.”
Miller says he wrestled with whether the photos would overshadow the statements: “I was concerned about the possibilities of racism, ageism, sexism and ugly-ism.”
But, he says, 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 says. “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 hoping to become 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 says. “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.
Says Lewallen: “I guess it would be like Gandhi in India. He wore the clothes of the common people.”
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,” says Harvey Englander, a Costa Mesa-based political 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,” says Englander, referring to the casual look of Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who is running for governor.
Hayden jokingly dodged the issue when asked about it: “I decided in February that I would not be emphasizing my looks.”
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,” says 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.”
Assemblywoman Gwen Moore of Los Angeles explains her rather unflattering picture in the pamphlet as a “bad hair day,” coupled with being unable 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,” says Moore, who is running against Miller. “We’ve had people call in and say that I ought to sue.”
She hopes the picture will have little or no effect 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. Based on his research, he believes that people may very well decide the primary based on the photographs--particularly in a race such as that for secretary of state, which does not attract the same media attention as, say, governor.
“Most people are not going to see much, so this may prove to be an unfortunately influential picture,” he says.
Miller shrugs off the criticism. “Whether the academics think that the voters need to know (a candidate’s appearance), voters want to know,” he says. “It’s . . . truth in advertising.”