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Power Ties and Presidential Elections

10/30/2012 02:52 pm 14:52:12 | Updated Dec 30, 2012

As a former U.S. Diplomat and current designer and lecturer, I can't help but comment on the well-crafted image of the two presidential candidates in the recent debates. In fact, I often tell students when it comes to style, nothing is an accident. Every detail is designed and intentional, so with that in mind, let's take an inside peek at the subliminal, subconscious -- yet intentional -- messages sent by the presidential candidates throughout the recent televised debates.

Detail 1: The Psychology of Color

Did anyone else notice the fabulous red "power" tie Mitt Romney rocked during the first and last presidential debates? That tie was not incidental; it was intentional. I know what you're thinking... the color choice was a symbolic representation of the Republican party, right? Probably not, considering President Obama also wore a red tie twice during the 2008 debates. The point is, as the non-incumbent (a.k.a "underdog"), in the first debate Romney had to prove himself a formidable opponent, one to be taken seriously by the voting public and the current administration. Romney had to come out swinging, and apparently he did. In fact, most analysts immediately dubbed Romney the clear winner in Round 1 of the three presidential debates. And, as both a political scientist and style expert, I can't help but think that red "power" tie certainly didn't hurt that winning image.

On the other end of the color spectrum, in addition to red, blue ties are often worn by presidential candidates on either side -- and not just in honor of Old Glory. There is some serious color psychology going on under the surface of this seemingly "patriotic" color scheme. According to a survey conducted by three global marketing firms, blue is the most preferred color the world over. In addition, blue is associated with loyalty, trust and reliability. (Perhaps that's why we use the phrase "true blue"?) Therefore, the U.S. President wears blue as a symbol of loyalty, not only to a specific voting demographic or political party, but as a symbol of his loyalty to the United States and the American public as a whole.

So perhaps President Obama's shift to a burgundy tie in the final debate was a last-ditch effort to regain control and assert himself as Commander-in-Chief, often alluding to the knowledge and experience he acquired during the last four years in office. Red, as aforementioned, is considered a power color because red is associated with blood, and therefore the passion and vitality that flows from the heart, which leads me to my next point...

Detail 2: Complexion, Complexion, Complexion

Just as the color red denotes vitality, or the life-blood coursing through our veins, a rosy complexion is generally associated with good health. I'm not sure if it was the red tie, which clearly complemented Romney's hair and skin tone, or the makeup (I suspect it was a combination of both), but the Republican candidate's complexion looked especially ruddy and vibrant when he sported a red tie. Obama's complexion, on the other hand, tended toward ashy and sallow, and I can't help but think that a little pop of rosy color would have provided a stronger contrast to the dark suit, dark hair and dark skin to brighten him up a bit. It's fairly obvious the past four years have taken their toll on President Obama, though it seems premature greying and aging has become commonplace for any contemporary Commander-in-Chief. Take a look back at pictures from the 2008 debate, and you'll see the stark contrast in complexion I'm talking about.

In fact, complexion is so important it was most likely one of the factors that threw the 1960 presidential election in John F. Kennedy's favor after the first ever televised presidential debate on September 26. Nixon, who had recently spent two weeks in the hospital and had lost 20 pounds, showed up in an ill-fitting suit and refused to wear makeup to improve his complexion or lighten his five o'clock shadow. Kennedy, on the other hand, had just spent the weeks prior to the debate campaigning in California and his complexion reflected a tan, well-rested candidate. Furthermore, Kennedy wore makeup which, no doubt, further improved his TV image. Whether or not the televised "Great Debates" threw the election in Kennedy's favor is irrelevant; what is important to note is the pervasiveness of style over substance. The majority of those listening to the debates on the radio deemed Nixon the winner, while the overwhelming majority who watched the debates on TV perceived Kennedy as the winner. Point being, more often than not, we "listen" with our eyes.

Detail 3: Accessories Make the Man

Finally, it's the little (or not so little) details that matter. Did anyone else notice Romney's supersized accessory in the final debate? Why was Romney's flag pin twice the size of the President's?! As a former bureaucrat, I have been an official recipient of one of those government-issued patriotic flags. (My pin actually had two flags, the Stars and Stripes alongside the Union Jack. It was a gift indicating my assignment to serve at the U.S. Embassy in London.) Having worked in Washington and overseas for the U.S. government, I've seen oodles of those mini patriotic pins, but never one the size of Romney's. Was it some campaign manager's or stylist's attempt to one-up the President on the accessory front? Perhaps there should be some sort of regulation or standardization of accessories in presidential debates similar to those that attempt to equalize the candidates' heights or balance out official "floor" time.

Substance vs. Style

As a diplomat turned designer, I know how important image is to outcomes. Hey, I wasn't appointed an official representative for the U.S. government at age 24 by being oblivious to details. As we head toward Election Day, I hope you'll heed the advice I give my students. Both substance and style are important, but the nonverbal often affects us at the subconscious level. So be sure you can separate the substance from the style, and you're on your way to becoming a savvy media consumer and prudent political participant.