Beauty's only skin deep... (yeah, yeah, yeah!)

A veteran of over a dozen political campaigns gives us the 4-1-1 on how short, bald and fat candidates can win elections.

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"You don't have to be cool to rule my world."
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Dan Whitfield
On 10 June 2011 15:37

He presided over an economic miracle in Mississippi, but when Haley Barbour announced he would not seek the Republican nomination to be the next President of the United States, some in Washington breathed a sigh of relief. He was too fat and too southern to win.

Weeks later, when his friend Mitch Daniels, who is revolutionizing education in Indiana, made a similar announcement, it was greeted with an indifferent shrug in certain quarters. He is, after all, too short and too bald to be president.

Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debates, when a pale, sweaty Richard Nixon was trounced by the youthful JFK, Washington experts have taught that the candidate with more charisma, character, and chutzpah will emerge supreme on election day.

These experts, as in so much else, are wrong. And the Republicans vying to be the next President of the United States would be wise to remember this.

That is not to say that over the last fifty years many noble but boring candidates have lost to opponents possessing a certain je ne sais quoi. Bill Clinton, in spite of a laundry-list of allegations against him, defeated both George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole – World War II veterans with unimpeachable character.

Across the pond former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defeated three consecutive Conservative Party leaders, despite being the only British premier ever to be questioned by police in a criminal investigation - during a scandal involving political donations.

Who can forget then-Senator Barack Obama, telegenic and youthful, crushing grizzled war hero John McCain in the election in 2008? Just last year, British Tory leader David Cameron replaced the grumpy Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, and the incoherent but glamorous Christine O'Donnell bested the dower Mike Castle in the Republican primary in Delaware.

Little wonder that researchers at the University of Helsinki recently published a study proving that voters are not only more likely to vote for an attractive candidate, but are also more likely to rate them as intelligent, trustworthy, and hardworking.

Based on such evidence, the Republican Party should consider scouring Hollywood for its candidate for President. Men like Newt Gingrich, cursed with a face for radio, would be better off running for president in 1911.

But before politicos throw up their hands in exasperation at fickle, superficial voters, a little dose of reality is needed.

With America facing a sluggish economy, anaemic employment figures, and crises abroad, voters are increasingly looking for candidates with compelling policies, not compelling haircuts.

Both the rise of the Tea Party and the labor union-led protests in Wisconsin show that people are far more informed about policy than the Washington elites assume, and consequently, are less likely to vote for a guy just because he looks like he belongs in a daytime soap opera.

Consider Sarah Palin, who was once considered the loadstar of the Republican right, but has now been reduced to cable news talking head. A variety of missteps have rendered her an implausible candidate for national office. Her appearance is striking, her speeches electrifying, and her personal biography compelling, but consecutive polls show her support is diminishing nonetheless.

Looking back, this should come as no surprise to students of history. In Great Britain, the grey, humble John Major defeated Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock in 1992, and went on to become Britain's 9th longing serving Prime Minister of the 20th century. This regardless of the charismatic Mr. Kinnock appearing in rock videos and with a slew of celebrity endorsements.

In Australia, the balding John Howard triumphed over big Kim Beazley twice, despite being known as a mediocre communicator. Howard was also famously parodied for his failure to catch and throw a ball.

Some argue that America is unique, that it's muscular democracy demands showmen, not the cerebral. Yet last November, Harry Reid, a man with all the charisma of Nevada tumbleweed, handily won re-election in what was an otherwise terrible year for Democrats. And in the last 30 years, Americans have sent Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush to White House, men of intellect and accomplishment, but lousy at telling a one-liner.

This is a good sign for those of us not blessed tight abs and razor cheek bones. Policy still matters.

As the Republican primary season gets underway, potential candidates and caucus-goers would be wise to remember this. Elections are not won by replacing stardust with stardust, but by providing voters with attractive policies – even if those policies are advanced by decidedly unattractive people. In the current political atmosphere, Quasimodo himself could win election, providing he was authentic in his defense of the free market.

To defeat Barack Obama next year, the Republican facing him must offer substantive solutions to the difficulties that beset America. They should be confident in the policies they present, and refuse to sweat on the small stuff.  There is, after all, simply no way for the Republican nominee to compete with President Obama in the celebrity stakes.

The Washington establishment – and Europeans - would be wise to give the American people more credit than they have heretofore been given.  In these perilous times, they understand the grave need to select a competent President, not a matinee teen idol. After years of Obama’s speechifying and cozying up to one nauseating celebrity after another, the country deserves a candidate that offers something more.

Dan Whitfield is a British copywriter living outside Washington, D.C.  A veteran of over a dozen political campaigns in both the UK and US, Dan now works for one of America’s largest conservative direct mail agencies.

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