It's hard to exaggerate how valuable a pleasing appearance can be. Numerous studies show that people rated good-looking make more money than those who are not so easy on the eyes. In the modern media age, the same effect holds in politics.
Good looks are a big advantage to male politicians as well. No one would have given the time of day to John Edwards or Mitt Romney if they were short, paunchy and bald. When Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm ran for president in 1996, he said, "The real question is whether someone as ugly as I am can be elected." He got his answer.
Palin is a clear rebuttal to the old line that politics is show business for ugly people. Tina Fey, who is pretty enough to make it in Hollywood, marveled after meeting Palin on "Saturday Night Live," "I'll tell you, that lady is five times better-looking than I am."
This may explain why, for all the talk about her as the stirring embodiment of the Walmart-shopping hockey mom, Palin's fans are heavily male. A June poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that her approval rating was 48 percent among men but only 41 percent among women. Females are less susceptible to feminine charms.
Palin is not alone in using her looks to enchant the Republican faithful. Carrie Prejean went from being a runner-up for Miss USA to a conservative heroine because she came out against gay marriage in her pageant interview -- but also because she wears a bikini well. Ann Coulter would be just another rabid pit bull if not for the long hair and short skirts.
Harriet Miers' problem was that she couldn't overcome her deficiencies with sex appeal. When people remain ardent fans of Palin no matter how badly she performs, it's reasonable to wonder what they are thinking. But thinking has nothing to do with it.
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