COLUMN ONE : Swaying Voters With Their Looks : The right suits or coifs can help candidates. A bad hair day can be used as an effective weapon by one’s opponent.
There’s no denying it: Dianne Feinstein looks awful. The unflattering portrait of the senator, featured prominently in her opponent’s television advertisements, captures the 61-year-old Democrat in partial profile--her jowls puffy, her expression at once dour and dowdy.
“It’s stupid,” said Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s media consultant. “People know that picture is not how she really looks.”
But Larry McCarthy, who chose the shot for ads he created for Republican Rep. Mike Huffington, has been using the image for years--ever since the 1990 governor’s race, when he produced ads for Pete Wilson, Feinstein’s opponent in that election.
Then, as now, McCarthy said, “It’s not our job to make her look good.”
It may sound superficial, trivial or even cynical, but campaign veterans acknowledge one of the fundamental axioms of politics: Looks matter.
Do well-fitted suits and stylish coifs win elections? Not by themselves.
But especially in a state as large as California, where televised images are as close as many voters get to candidates, physical appearance--including posture, gestures and wardrobe--can make a difference on Election Day. Or to put it another way: One homely photo of your opponent can be worth 1,000 words.
“Voters’ impressions of a candidate are based on a lot of bits of information that are perceived visually,” said Darry Sragow, who managed Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi’s failed primary campaign for governor. “I don’t want to put ideas in anybody’s head, but if you had a picture of your opponent as a flower child looking hippie-ish, that could be very powerful.”
Sragow and other political consultants agree that pictures have a stronger impact if they reinforce other campaign themes. So between now and November, observers said, voters can expect to see Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown looking mature and confident (in her ads) and girlish and inexperienced (in the ads of her opponent, Wilson). The incumbent governor will look either capable or curmudgeonly, depending on the source.
“We want to avoid the cheap shot . . . but still give people a glimpse into the true Pete Wilson,” said Jim Stearns, creative director at Clinton Reilly Communications, where Brown’s ads and mailers are being produced. Culling through hundreds of photos available from archival agencies and other sources, Stearns says he has sought images in which Wilson looks beleaguered, ineffective and overwhelmed by the task of governing.
A favorite shot, featured in one recent Brown ad, shows Wilson resting his head on one hand. “It’s a classic,” Stearns said. “There are some sympathetic qualities, but in a certain context he looks tired and exasperated. He’s looking out at the viewer and saying: ‘Couldn’t you help me?'--instead of helping them.”
Dan Schnur, Wilson’s campaign spokesman, downplays how much time and effort his camp has invested in finding a similarly evocative photo of Brown.
“At some point we’ll just start using a picture of Jerry and drawing in the hair,” he joked, referring to Brown’s brother, former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. “But for our purposes, letting people know that she’s against the death penalty and doesn’t think illegal immigration is a problem is a lot scarier than any picture we could find.”
If there is a benchmark by which political consultants measure the power of physiognomy, it is the 1960 televised presidential debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy appeared tan, relaxed and confident. Nixon, who had a 5 o’clock shadow and sweated profusely under hot lights, appeared shifty and nervous.
Drop-dead gorgeousness does not necessarily win elections either. In fact, research conducted by Shawn Rosenberg, a professor in UC Irvine’s department of political psychology, found that when voters were asked to rate photographs of real and fake candidates, the very beautiful or handsome entries garnered fewer votes than the average-looking ones.
Rosenberg found certain physical characteristics weighed heavily on voters’ minds. Bangs, for example.
“In the case of women (candidates), if they had bangs it seemed to severely decrease the perception that they were competent and trustworthy,” Rosenberg said. Men did better without mustaches. Flat cheekbones were seen as more politically desirable than high ones, and round faces attracted more votes than oblong ones. And generally the older a candidate was, the better.
Rosenberg is fully aware that “being honest and competent is very different than appearing honest and competent.” But his experiments indicate that a lot of people do not readily grasp the distinction.
With a little image-crafting--makeup, hairstyling and adjusted camera angles--Rosenberg found that he could improve his experimental candidates’ ratings as much as five percentage points. The addition of simple jewelry to a female candidate was also found to boost her appeal.
“With the same issues, the same party, more people were willing to vote for them” after such polishing, said Rosenberg, who not surprisingly has received offers to consult on real campaigns. He said he has turned them down, preferring to devote his time to scholarly study.
Rosenberg’s research did not test the impact of race on voters’ perceptions--he used only non-Latino white models. But to the extent that photos can be used to play on stereotypes, minority candidates may be vulnerable.
The ACLU once accused Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana of having “appealed to racial sentiments” when he used a photograph of Yvonne Brathwaite Burke on a 1980 campaign mailer. Burke, who is black and had been appointed to represent a predominantly white district, was defeated by Dana, who is white. Dana’s campaign claimed that it would have used a portrait of Burke no matter what race she was.
Clothing can help make the most of a candidate’s natural attributes--and in this arena, there are some obvious rules. Among them: No tank tops. “Not very many people get elected who wear tank tops,” Carrick said. Another no-no: artificial fibers. “You don’t want to come across as too polyester,” veteran political adviser Joe Cerrell said.
In general, a political wardrobe should not steal attention from the candidate. But some have bucked this idea, turning an idiosyncrasy into a trademark. Consider S.I. Hayakawa, the late U.S. senator, and his tam-o'-shanter. Or Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and his bow ties.
Jerry Anderson, executive director of the Neckwear Assn. of America, recalls that during the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter raised eyebrows by often donning a “lucky” burgundy polka-dotted tie. Though he was up against tamer cravats, Carter prevailed.
When it comes to hue, female candidates have an advantage. Although fashion dictates that their male counterparts dress almost exclusively in dark blues and sober grays, women are freer to roam the spectrum--sporting reds, greens and purples that shine on camera.
“At a time when men as a group politically are going to be viewed as Old Guard and boring anyway, this reinforces it,” said Sragow, who is running the reelection campaign of Rep. Rick H. Lehman (D-North Fork). Men must face facts, he said: For them “to wear a red or green suit is to be viewed as an agent of change that voters would not find acceptable.”
This sometimes sparks a phenomenon that Carrick calls “color envy,” and he offers a favorite example from California’s 1990 gubernatorial race. Carrick claims that before one televised debate, Wilson--then a U.S. senator--worried aloud about how his wardrobe would compare to Feinstein’s.
“Wilson said, . . . ‘Here’s my problem: I’m going to walk on the stage and I’m going to be in my gray suit and she’s going to wear a red suit and I’m going to look like I’m not even here,’ ” Carrick recalled. “He just blurted it out in a bout of color envy.”
Wilson shouldn’t have worried, according to Michael Sheehan, a Washington-based media consultant and communication trainer who often coaches candidates for the Democratic National Committee. Barring outlandish costumes, he said, a politician’s outfit is far less important than physical bearing. Whether captured in photos or on videotape, he said, good posture and non-threatening gestures are key to making a winning impression.
“The Dick Nixon death-grip-on-the-podium (makes a candidate) look tense,” Sheehan said, ticking off a few basic tips. “And arms crossed against the chest implies impatience.”
Sheehan also advises candidates never to shout, no matter how large an audience they face. (“You’ll look like you’ve had one too many cups of double espresso.”) And for would-be leaders who tend to gesticulate, he recommends rounded gestures instead of sharp, accusatory motions.
“Voters need to get a sense of confidence in the individual--'Can I trust this person to make the right decision for me?’ ” he said. “And I don’t think you trust the person who’s poking you in the chest with their index finger.”
Although most top campaign managers acknowledge that appearance matters, none admit to hiring beauty professionals to perform miracle make-overs. “This isn’t ‘Oprah,’ ” scoffs one campaign adviser.
But when it comes to selecting photographs, that’s another story.
So will Feinstein retaliate against Huffington, matching his hideous photo of her with one of him that is equally unbecoming? Kam Kuwata, Feinstein’s campaign manager, admits to fantasizing about revenge.
“The ideal picture I would use is one of him in a 10-gallon hat with a (expletive)-eating grin on his face,” Kuwata said, referring to a recent photo that appeared in The Times. In Kuwata’s view: “It portrays him as an outsider, not a Californian. The grin says he’s more interested in himself than who you are.”
That shot, Kuwata said, would be even more effective than “one where he had food falling out of his mouth.”
But Carrick, Feinstein’s media consultant, says he prefers to play it straighter. So far, the only photo he has used of Huffington depicts him in shirt and tie, gazing into space.
As for the dour-faced shot of Feinstein: “The voters get turned off when you find some . . . picture that they know is not representative,” Carrick said, predicting that Huffington’s ads could backfire. “People are cynical. They say, ‘Yeah, we know what’s going on here.’ ”
The Eye of the Beholder
Looks matter on Election Day. But not everyone agrees on what turns voters on and off. Many politicians portray their opponents in profile so here is no eye contact with voters. But in state Treasurer Kathleen Brown’s ads, Gov. Pete Wlson stares right into the camera. “We want people to look in his eyes,” says one Brown aide. “What do you see?... A guy who talks tough and doesn’t deliver.”
As the incumbent, Wilson stresses his leadership experience by soberly facing the camera.... Brown seeks to portray a beleaguered Wilson, leaning on his hand for support.
Seeking to appear strong, capable and caring, Brown’s eyes greet the camera and her smile is friendly.... Wilson captures her in profile, her lips frozen in an accusatory pose. Is she dogged? Or just defensive?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein uses a photo that shows confidence and warmth.... Rep. Mike Huffington portrays her as puffy-cheeked and grim, more a grumpy matron than a U.S. senator.
Huffington, in an open-collared shirt and light jacket, seeks to resemble the common man.... Feinstein shows a more formal Huffington. And what exactly, is he squinting at?