The battle between the two Democratic front-runners, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is a battle of image. The two candidates largely agree on policy; they have voted with other Senate Democrats over 90 percent of the time. Yet voter reactions to the two candidates have varied wildly.
Why? As I explain in my new book about the history and politics of presidential image-making, "Project President: Bad Hair and Botox on the Road to the White House," voters rarely look at policy when they pull the lever for a politician -- we look instead at the person. We judge politicians the same way we judge other people: based on the image they project. Scientists say we judge whether a person is likeable, competent, attractive, trustworthy and aggressive within less than one-tenth of a second.
That means we judge our politicians by looking at their hair, their height, their age, their sense of humor, their rustic or urban feel. We judge them based on their vibe, their attitude. That first glance means everything -- and it always has.
George Washington crafted his image to meet the needs of his constituency: In June 1775, Washington showed up at the Second Continental Congress wearing his full dress uniform, attempting to impress his colleagues into appointing him chief commander of the American military. Abraham Lincoln used his 6'4" height to his advantage, towering over 5'4" "Little General" Stephen Douglas during the 1860 presidential race. And Warren G. Harding's tanned good looks won him the White House, despite his dramatic lack of rhetorical skill and political know-how.
Politicians know that Americans look at image, and they attempt to craft themselves accordingly. But the art of manipulation isn't that simple. Americans love cowboys, but not everyone can pull off the cowboy image -- Hillary Clinton would look foolish in a cowboy hat. Americans love military men, but not everyone can pull off the military image -- Michael Dukakis tanked his candidacy by sitting in a tank.
Politicians must find a winning image that fits them; they must find a winning image that is authentic. Voters can spot inauthenticity a mile away. Mike Huckabee seems authentic, comfortable in his wryly humorous backcountry skin. Mitt Romney seems slick and businesslike, which is probably why Republican voters -- even those who share his political convictions -- are less than enthusiastic about his candidacy.
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