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Could the Obamas' Hair Actually Impact the Election?

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Apparently I struck a nerve with some last week when I dared to mention that the physical appearance of a candidate does impact whom voters choose to vote for. Some found my references to Gov. Chris Christie "fatphobic," even though I made it clear that presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney could actually learn a thing or two from his less svelte supporter.

Others wondered how Gov. Christie's weight could be perceived as a liability when he defeated a thinner candidate to become Governor in the first place -- former Senator turned Governor Jon Corzine. An interesting question, until you consider that multiple studies have found that perhaps the only bigger turn off for voters than excess weight is excess facial hair, unless your name is actually Abraham Lincoln. Corzine sported facial hair throughout his campaign against Christie.

Also working against Corzine? The fact that not only do voters frown on too much hair on the face, but they also frown on too little on the head. Bald candidates and bearded candidates virtually tie for toughest uphill climb to elected office. Corzine happens to be both. (He also wears glasses. I'm not sure what studies have to say about that but speaking as a glasses wearer who first started fumbling with my contacts in junior high, I can't imagine they're an asset.)

The issue of hair and the role it actually plays in elections has become one of the most enduring urban legends of American politics. Plenty of people repeat the adage that "the candidate with the best hair always wins" as gospel. (A google search of this doesn't come up with much data but millions and millions of references to this hypothesis.)

Michael Goldman, a political consultant who has advised Senators Bill Bradley, Ted Kennedy, Gov. Deval Patrick and others, laughed when I asked him about the "best hair" hypothesis, and said that it is a bit of an urban legend unless you are specifically comparing a candidate who has hair to one who has none. But he added that appearance matters, particularly for female candidates.

As tough as voters can be on the Chris Christies and John Corzines of the world, they are still much tougher on the Hillary Clintons -- and even the Michelle Obamas. "How many times did people make comments about Hillary's legs or her hairdo?" Goldman asked. Whether it's Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann, "One of the real obstacles women have in running for office or serving as public officials is that the media is often more interested in their shoes than their views," said Julie Burton, President of the Women's Media Center. Goldman added to this notion that women are damned if they do and damned if they don't when it comes to appearance, in a way that men are not. "I would argue that if a candidate is too attractive that for some voters that is a negative. If they are not attractive enough that is a negative for some voters. The point is the hardest thing for a woman candidate still is 'how do I best get taken seriously?' and if my appearance is going to deter me being taken seriously then I've got a problem."

Christine Jahnke, a media trainer who has advised both First Lady Michelle Obama and Sen. Al Franken, echoed this sentiment. "The wise candidate recognizes that appearances do count -- from hair to hemline to heel height," she said. "A candidate's look does impact her ability to be heard and to be taken seriously. If the dress is dowdy and the hair last century, the woman and her opinion can be dismissed as outdated."

Goldman and Jahnke both advise candidates on their appearances, from wardrobe to hair. Jahnke gave specific examples of how hair in particular, can matter. She pointed to former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm who in addition to being armed with a degree from Harvard is blonde and pretty, which for some voters could have been a handicap. Jahnke noted that Granholm cut her blonde locks shorter and really tailored her overall look. "By downplaying the packaging, the pundits had to pass judgment on the record not on what she wore to a groundbreaking ceremony." But Jahnke admitted it can be tougher to get more mature female candidates -- those who have spent their careers breaking glass ceilings based on their work ethic alone -- to appreciate that something as superficial as a hairstyle can influence voters. "They are all about substance. Thus, they don't understand why it is important to update their look." But she did point to one rare example in which refusing to update worked swimmingly for a candidate.

Ann Richards' "Texas-sized, dairy-whip hairdo defied nature and flouted the stereotypical image of leadership... as governor she declared an official Texas Big Hair Day in 1993," Jahnke recalled. "She often quipped: 'I get a lot of cracks about my hair, mostly from men who don't have any.'"

Dairy whip dos 1. Baldies 0.

The Richards anecdote highlights the one quality that trumps appearance in the eyes of voters: authenticity. Tiffany Dufu, President of the White House Project, an organization that encourages women to run for office, said the most important piece of advice she has for any woman considering a run for office is to remember that, "Authenticity rules."

But female candidates are not the only ones whose appearance is constantly under a microscope. Candidate spouses are often fair game. Callista Gingrich's disciplined, frosted blonde bob got so much coverage during the GOP primary that it might as well have been running its own campaign. "The double-standard is pretty obvious," said Julie Burton, President of the Women's Media Center. "Much media scrutiny has been devoted to covering the hair styles and wardrobe choices of candidates' wives, but we have not noted a similar interest in the media in the appearance of husbands of women candidates."

For black women in the political sphere, the issue of hair comes with added political baggage. While there are some black Americans who feel strongly that using chemicals to straighten our hair is a sign of some lack of cultural pride, there are some white Americans who view natural hair as some radical political statement. (Both perspectives are silly generalizations.) This means that the choice of hairstyle represents a political landmine for black female candidates, and black female candidate spouses, like Michelle Obama.

When I asked Michael Goldman if it would negatively impact President Obama's reelection campaign if the First Lady decided to start sporting a natural do, he replied, "If you're saying to me 'what if Michelle Obama wore her hair like Angela Davis in the 1960's?' then I would say that would be unacceptable to voters. But I would say in balance if Romney's wife came out in a beehive that would be unacceptable, too. It's about what would be considered out of the norm from the general public's perspective and for the general public, which remains majority white, an Angela Davis afro would be out of the norm because it would send a statement, just like a beehive."

He pointed out that there are African-American female candidates who have succeeded with natural hair, usually when it is cropped short, a look Goldman called "attractive" and said would be less likely to prove problematic for someone in the First Lady's position, than a so-called Angela Davis do. (It's worth noting that the chapter that has generated some of the greatest feedback, particularly from African-American women readers of my novel The GQ Candidate, is one in which the fed up African-American spouse of a presidential candidate stands up to her husband's aides who are pressuring her to straighten her hair.)

According to consultant Michael Goldman, as shallow as we may think voters are when it comes to judging candidate appearance, ultimately, "every job has expectations regarding dress. I mean if you are a greeter at a strip joint and wear a Hillary Clinton pantsuit people will look at you funny too."

With the new USA series Political Animals re-wetting the appetite of Hillary loyalists [Spoiler alert] with dreams of another presidential run, many are hoping we will see the Hillary pantsuit make a comeback on the campaign trail.

But here's hoping this time around the pantsuits aren't covered, just her politics and policies are.

Click here to read the full interview with political consultant Michael Goldman.


Click here to see which black female elected officials wear their hair natural.


Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com, where this piece originally appeared.

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