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The Magic Formula
Sorry, folks. There is no magic formula that can unerringly predict winners and losers in presidential elections. A haircut may cause a sensation in one election (JFK, 1960) and fall flat in another (John Kerry, 2004). Height may be a boon to one candidate (Lincoln, 1860 and 1864) but a bust for another (Winfield Scott, 1852). Age may demonstrate seasoned experience (Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952 and 1956) or decrepitude (Bob Dole, 1996).
Acting like a cowboy may thrill voters (George W. Bush, 2000 and 2004) or it may alienate them (Barry Goldwater, 1964). Acting aloof may cripple one candidate (Al Gore, 2000) but boost another (Woodrow Wilson, 1912 and 1916). Military experience may ensure victory (Ulysses S. Grant, 1868 and 1872), or it may spell defeat (George McClellan, 1864). An outspoken wife may hurt a candidate (Gerald Ford, 1976) or aid him (Bill Clinton, 1992).
Still, we can spot trends. Americans generally like boots rather than suits; tall men rather than short men; candidates above age fifty; nominees with good but inexpensive haircuts; people we wouldn't mind sitting next to at a bar; men with military experience, if that military experience is important enough; and men with wives who aren't catty or loud.
And we can form educated opinions about each of these factors for each candidate. For some candidates, certain factors never become an issue: the first lady issue, for instance, played no part in any election until the mid-twentieth century, except for Andrew Jackson (1824 and 1828) and Grover Cleveland (1888 and 1892). But by measuring the impact, pro or con, of each image issue, we can quickly determine which presidential candidate has the image advantage.
Here, then, are the top ten image candidates of all time. Each applicable factor has been ranked on a scale from -5 (worst) to 5 (best). After adding together the applicable factors, we determine a percentage grade for each candidate by dividing the number of points by the number of points possible. Every election is different, so we can't assume that just because Bill Clinton's draft dodging didn't hurt him in 1992, it wouldn't have hurt him against Dwight D. Eisenhower. To that end, we have added an adjusted score--how would these candidates fare in today's political climate? It is worth noting that every one of these politicians was a master of image. There is no doubt that each would have adapted to changing times, so our adjusted scores are not necessarily the final word.
1. Warren G. Harding, 1920
Warren G. Harding was the purest image politician in American history. Nominated for his good looks, Harding died in office after his administration subjected the country to a series of devastating corruption scandals. Rarely has image contrasted so sharply with ability.
At six feet tall, Harding was solidly built and powerful looking. He looked fit as a fiddle (and he was apparently ready for love--at least according to Nan Britton).
At fifty-five, Harding was the perfect age. He seemed healthful, tanned, vital. He radiated an air of solemnity and gravitas.
His thick silvery hair was an aesthetically pleasing addition to his bronzed, chiseled face.
Beer Buddy: 5
Everyone liked Warren G. Harding--even those who thought him an intellectual midget. "His home people declare him as sincere as Roosevelt; affable as McKinley, and with Blaine's capacity for inspiring friendships," wrote campaign biographer Joe Mitchell Chapple. 1 Harding's penchant for making friends served him ill in office--his "friends" betrayed him repeatedly. "I have no trouble with my enemies," Harding once declared. "I can take care of my enemies all right. It's my friends that keep me up at night." 2
Final Score: 100%
Woodrow Wilson successfully put to rest the suits vs. boots debate, and Harding was the beneficiary. He had no military experience, but he didn't need any. His wife, while helpful, had no impact on his image.
Adjusted Score: 68%
Harding could easily be elected today. His affable image, combined with his impressive personal appearance, would remain a powerful asset. Harding was lucky to run in 1920 in one respect: the media did not investigate his sexual exploits. Harding was quite promiscuous--during the 1920 election, he paid off a former mistress to keep her mouth shut. This would certainly become a major campaign issue today (-3).
2. George Washington, 1788 and 1792
General Washington ran unopposed--twice. Potential opponents were smart to stay out of his way.
Suits vs. Boots: 4
Washington was a boots candidate, all the way, a rich and cultured wilderness man. Experience in the French and Indian War lent him an air of adventure; marrying Martha Washington didn't hurt his bank account. Washington loved his plantation and lavished his attention on it. Here was a true American Cincinnatus.
Standing somewhere between six feet two inches and six feet three and a half inches, Washington towered over his compatriots. John Adams suspected that Washington's height lent him an amorphous leadership quality. Washington was, literally and figuratively, a giant among men.
The "Father of Our Country" didn't take his title lightly. Washington often relied on his age to garner support, citing his graying hair and weakened eyes as evidence of his lifelong commitment to his country. It worked to perfection. Marvin Kitman wrote: "He did it the way Ronald Reagan would have done it." 3
The man was George Washington. Need we say more?
Final Score: 95%
Washington's hair didn't matter very much, though he wore his own and powdered it. Martha didn't matter much either--which is fortunate for George, since George married her for her money. As for Washington's personality, it too was ignored. The man was a demigod in his own time, and no one expected a demigod to pal around with mere mortals.
Adjusted Score: 37%
Today's media would have savaged Washington. The Father of Our Country would have faced scrutiny over his lavish, unbootslike spending habits (2), questionable military tactics (4), gold-digging (-3) and his cold austerity (-3), though he would have gained points for keeping his hair (3).
3. Abraham Lincoln, 1864
Lincoln benefited from political divisions and his strong wartime leadership. Also, the South couldn't vote. Nonetheless, it pays to remember that Honest Abe wasn't just a great man--he was a terrific politician.
Suits vs. Boots: 5
Abe Lincoln revivified log cabin imagery, spoke often of his wilderness upbringing, and became known far and wide as the Rail-splitter. He was folksy, witty, and wise. In short, Abe was a paramount boots candidate.
Lincoln stood a full six feet four inches. Lincoln's impressive height had been perhaps his most recognizable feature since 1858, when Lincoln debated "Little Giant" Stephen Douglas, who stood a mere five feet four inches. Now, Lincoln faced "Little Napoleon," General George McClellan, five feet eight inches. No contest.
Lincoln's beard was already iconic. When Lincoln grew out his beard to please an eleven-year-old girl, he created a political image that shaped the next fifty years of presidential facial hair. Lincoln's beard helped round out his gaunt, rather ugly face, giving him an appearance of melancholy wisdom. McClellan's handlebar mustache was stylish, but it contributed to his image as a dandy.
Beer Buddy: 5
Lincoln's modern image overshadows the fact that he had an arch wit, a folksy sense of humor, and a gentle disposition. Lincoln's storytelling prowess was legendary. Plus, he had once been a bartender.
Lincoln had very little military experience, but his Civil War leadership paid electoral dividends, particularly after major battle victories by Generals Sherman and Grant in the lead-up to the 1864 election. It didn't hurt that Lincoln had already repudiated McClellan's military leadership by firing him in 1863.
Final Score: 92%
Lincoln's age made little difference in the 1864 election; fortunately for him, neither did his wife's nuttiness and Confederate relatives.
Adjusted Score: 25%
Lincoln's beard worked for three reasons: beards were popular, Lincoln was ugly, and Lincoln's beard had already been emblazoned in the public mind. If Lincoln ran today, none of those factors would apply. His beard would seem like a shoddy cover-up for his unappealing mug. Being a practical politician, Lincoln would remain clean-shaven--and a clean-shaven Lincoln was not a pretty sight (-2). Lincoln's height would have helped less than it did in 1864; he was gawky and awkward looking, particularly since his size contrasted sharply with his high-pitched voice (2). Mary Todd would have hurt Lincoln's candidacy--her mental problems and three Confederate brothers would have damaged the president (-4).
4. Teddy Roosevelt, 1904
War hero. Trust-buster. Big game hunter. Politician extraordinaire. The candidate with the infectious grin and heavy mustache was one of the most popular presidents in American history. After all, who could dislike the man who inspired the teddy bear?
Suits vs. Boots: 5
"Now look!" Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio exclaimed upon hearing of TR's election, "That damned cowboy is President of the United States." 4 Heavily image conscious, Teddy hunted regularly, rode horses--and made sure never to get caught by the press while playing golf. His early cowboy days in the Dakota territories left an indelible mark on TR, who later claimed, "I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota."
Age Score: 4
At forty-six, TR was young and vital. He was also experienced--he was the incumbent president of the United States.
Beer Buddy: 4
Though TR was reputedly arrogant, he was also "more fun than a goat," according to Secretary of State John Hay. 5 We'll take Hay's word for it.
TR wasn't a general, but he was a self-promoting Spanish-American War hero. That was good enough for his supporters, who championed his stint in Cuba as a Rough Rider.
Final Score: 85%
Teddy's hair wasn't an issue, since his opponent also sported a mustache. His wife, too, remained out of the spotlight.
Adjusted Score: 60%
TR was a master of publicity. He was also a handsome fellow, if somewhat on the short side at five feet eight inches (-1). His wife was cultured and by all accounts, delightful (2). His mustache might have to go, but his thick thatch of brown hair would accentuate his youth (3). All in all, TR's maverick image remains as vibrant today as it did in 1904.
5. Ulysses S. Grant, 1868 and 1872
General Grant followed in the political footsteps of Abraham Lincoln and the military footsteps of George Washington and Andrew Jackson. Chosen to carry the Republican banner after Lincoln's death, Grant became as successful on the political battlefield as he was on the actual battlefield. He ran roughshod over his opponents, Horatio Seymour and Horace Greeley.
Suits vs. Boots: 5
Though Grant was unsuccessful at every nonmilitary career he tried, his supporters harped on his pre-Civil War tenure as a tanner. A lifelong horseman and farmer, Grant's boots credentials were well earned.
Grant likely didn't mean to make his beard the focus of caricaturists. Nonetheless, his close-shorn beard and hardy looks closely paralleled Lincoln's, emphasizing the fact that Grant would fill Lincoln's shoes.
Beer Buddy: 3
Grant was often solemn, but he also struck those around him as honest and friendly. "I found this great man affable and just in his remarks, courteous in his demeanor, and the mode in which he shakes hands told me at once of his sincerity and honesty," wrote a European visitor. 6 His opponents called him a drunk, but the charges did not stick.
The victor of Shiloh and Vicksburg, the former general in chief of all the armies of the Union, the recipient of General Robert E. Lee's surrender, Grant could safely rest on his substantial military accomplishments.
Final Score: 80%
Grant's age, height, and wife played no role in the two campaigns.
Adjusted Score: 50%
Grant's facial hair would not be an asset today; it was an asset at the time because beards were popular, and because Grant effectually succeeded the bearded Lincoln as the standard-bearer for the Union cause (2). Grant's military accomplishments are awe-inspiring, but he would surely be criticized for his heavy expenditure of Union troops (4). His height, five feet eight inches, would be a detriment rather than an asset (-1). His wife would provide slight benefit (2). Without hard evidence of drunkenness, Grant's alleged alcoholism would likely meet with the same criticism and defense it did in 1868.
6. Andrew Jackson, 1828
Old Hickory whupped the tar out of John Quincy Adams. He was a rough, tough, mean son-of-a-gun. He was also an enormously effective image politician.
Suits vs. Boots: 5
Jackson, said paradigmatic suit John Quincy Adams, was "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name." 7 In 1806, lawyer Charles Dickinson impugned Rachel Jackson's honor. Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel. Dickinson fired first; the bullet struck Jackson directly in the chest. Jackson didn't move an inch. He stood, "his feet sloshing in blood that had drained from his chest," and then coldly shot Dickinson through the abdomen. Dickinson died. Jackson carried Dickinson's bullet in his chest all the way to the grave. 8 It doesn't get more boots than that.
Jackson's reedy build contrasted sharply with John Quincy Adams's short tubbiness. Cartoons of the time capitalized on the contrast.
Jackson's wiry, wild shock of hair was as iconic in its time as Lincoln's beard was during the Civil War. It reinforced his wilderness image--and again, contrasted sharply with Quincy Adams's baldness.
Beer Buddy: 4
Jackson wasn't the typical beer buddy. He wasn't the type of fellow you'd want to hang out with on a regular basis, unless you were a loyal lackey--you might say the wrong thing and end up on the wrong side of a duel. He was, however, the type of fellow you'd want on your side in a bar fight. John Derbyshire of National Review said that if we made a list of presidential SOBs, Old Hickory would top the list. 9 Nonetheless, Jackson had the common touch--for the first time in presidential history, a "commoner" occupied the White House.
As the greatest American military hero since Washington, Jackson's only hardship was deflecting accusations that he had pursued his foes too vigorously and treated his troops too brutally.
Jackson was one of the few early presidential candidates for whom his wife was an issue. Jackson's mishandling of his marriage led to charges that his wife was an adulteress and bigamist.
Final Score: 73%
Jackson's age had no impact on the 1828 election--J. Q. Adams was precisely the same age.
Adjusted Score: 60%
Jackson was one of the rare early politicians who would succeed now. Populist, hardy, heroic, Jackson could appeal to the masses. His beer buddy rating would likely be lower than it was at the time, since he wasn't Mr. Friendly (3). His marital woes would follow him (-3). He would have to tone down the hair (4). His military record would come under fire for excessive savagery (4). At sixty-one, Jackson was still chock full of piss and vinegar. He would remain a formidable electoral foe today.
7. Franklin Pierce, 1852
Yes, Franklin Pierce. Pierce was easily the most handsome man to occupy the White House. "Pierce was a nincompoop," proclaimed Harry Truman. "He's got the best picture in the White House . . . but being president involves a little bit more than just winning a beauty contest, and he was another one that was a complete fizzle . . . Pierce didn't know what was going on, and even if he had, he wouldn't have known what to do about it." 10 Pierce may have been a nincompoop, but he was a particularly effective image politician.
Suits vs. Boots: 2
Pierce was born in a log cabin, but he received a classical education and became a lawyer. His supporters focused on his humble beginnings. Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of Pierce's best friends, penned a campaign biography: "In 1785, being employed as agent to explore a tract of wild land, [General Benjamin Pierce] purchased a lot of fifty acres in what is now the town of Hillsborough. In the spring of the succeeding year, he built himself a log hut, and began the clearing and cultivation of his tract . . . In 1789, he married Anna Kendrick, with whom he lived about half a century, and who bore him eight children, of whom Franklin was the sixth." 11 Pierce's own refusal to embrace sectional loyalties (Pierce was a pro-slavery candidate from New Hampshire) contributed to his image as a man of the land rather than a Northern city boy.
Pierce stood a compact five feet ten inches; his proportionality and good looks compared favorably with Winfield Scott's aged enormity (six feet five inches).
At forty-seven, Pierce seemed hearty and healthy; Scott, at sixty-six, did not.
Pierce had fantastic hair before fantastic hair was fashionable. His thick, curly black hair hung down loosely over the left side of his forehead, giving him a studiedly disheveled appearance. He had a few gray hairs at the temples, adding a distinguished touch.
Beer Buddy: 5
Nobody seemed to dislike Pierce personally. Pierce, said biographer James Rawley, was "a boon barroom companion, possessing both personal magnetism and a desire to please others." 12
Brigadier General Pierce became a Mexican War hero, despite fainting spells brought on by wounds incurred in battle. Though his military record did not come close to matching that of his opponent and former superior officer, Pierce was able to capitalize on his military service.
Final Score: 67%
Pierce's wife, Jane, did not contribute to the campaign. In fact, Jane opposed Pierce's run for the presidency.
Adjusted Score: 68.5%
As Warren G. Harding's image did, Pierce's image profile largely stands the test of time. Pierce's military record came under heavy scrutiny in 1852--nothing would change today. Today's political climate would heighten Pierce's appeal; his wife, Jane, would receive tremendous sympathy for the tragic death of their son, Benny, during the campaign (4).
8: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1944
After twelve years as president of the United States, FDR was an American institution. His victory in the 1944 election was a foregone conclusion. Upbeat, brilliant, warm, FDR was the first man to take full advantage of mass media--his use of radio revolutionized the art of politics.
FDR's height worked to his advantage in 1944. When he stood, FDR was six feet two inches; his opponent, Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, was five feet eight inches. FDR was a veritable giant; his opponent was "the little man on the wedding cake." The media helped FDR minimize the political effects of his polio.
FDR's doctors reported that the president was healthy. Nonetheless, Dewey charged that FDR was a "tired old man." FDR was reelected, then died five months later.
The still-well-coiffed FDR looked younger than his health.
Beer Buddy: 5
FDR's jauntily angled cigarette holder and winning grin helped millions through hard times. It would be difficult to find a more popular beer buddy than FDR.
As Lincoln did, FDR receives points for leading the nation during a time of war.
Eleanor Roosevelt remains the prototypical first lady.
Final Score: 63%
FDR's suit image didn't hurt him during the Age of the Bankers.
Adjusted Score: 43%
FDR's image would never survive mass media scrutiny today. His polio would not have been buried--it would have become a front-page issue (2). His age would have been connected more strongly with his health (-2). His military leadership would have been attacked, particularly in the aftermath of allegations about the Roosevelt Administration's failure to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor (3). Eleanor would have been a far more controversial figure today than she was in 1944. Her suspected lesbianism, far-left political activism, and open power marriage would remind voters more of Hillary Clinton than Lady Bird Johnson (2). FDR would have overcome all of this for two reasons: Dewey was an especially weak image politician, and FDR was already an icon.
9: Ronald Reagan, 1980
The Great Communicator was a consummate image politician. A former actor, Reagan knew the value and art of image framing--and he used it productively in his campaign against incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Suits vs. Boots: 4
Reagan focused on his Midwestern upbringing, his modest roots, his love for the countryside, his ranch in Santa Monica. He chopped wood, rode horses, and wore a cowboy hat.
Reagan stood six feet one inch; Carter stood five feet nine inches. During the presidential debates, Reagan looked taller than the incumbent; he also stood ramrod straight, demonstrating dignity and pride.
Reagan turned sixty-nine in 1980, making his age a hot button issue throughout the campaign. Reagan not only defused the issue by emphasizing his age, he turned his age to his advantage by talking about his experience and calling America back to a better way of life. Reagan was, he said, the oldest and the wisest. Americans believed him.
Reagan's pitch-black hair reinforced perceptions of youthfulness--this was no gray old man.
Beer Buddy: 4
As FDR did before him, Reagan constantly wore a smile. He reassured Americans that the best was yet to come. As the campaign wore on, Carter began to look desperate, mean, and petty; Reagan continued to radiate kindness and optimism.
Though Reagan could not serve overseas during World War II because of poor eyesight, he served as a captain in the Army Air Force in Hollywood, making training films for the troops. That experience popped up in his campaign commercials.
Nancy Reagan modeled adoration throughout the 1980 campaign, irritating Reagan's opponents. She helped Reagan project the image of ideal family man.
Final Score: 60%
Adjusted Score: No adjusted score is necessary for such a recent candidate.
10: John F. Kennedy, 1960
When we think image politics, we think John F. Kennedy. The hair, the smile, the charm--Kennedy was . . . well . . . Kennedy.
Suits vs. Boots: 0
Kennedy hit the precise midpoint between suit and boots. He wasn't rough-hewn enough to be a boots candidate; he wasn't stiff enough to be a suit.
Kennedy was six feet, an ideal height; Nixon, however, was five feet eleven inches, so JFK didn't see much of an advantage here, although he derived an advantage from Nixon favoring his bad knee during the first presidential debate.
Kennedy's age could have been a problem for him--at forty-three, Kennedy was the youngest presidential candidate since Thomas Dewey in 1944. With his youth and energy, he was able to capture the heart of the nation without losing on the experience issue; Nixon was only four years older than JFK.
No comment necessary.
Beer Buddy: 4
Kennedy was witty, loved sports (Jackie broke her ankle shortly after marrying JFK during one of those famous Kennedy touch football games), and knew how to have a good time. Of course, the public didn't know just how much JFK loved to carouse. If they had, they wouldn't have approved.
As Teddy Roosevelt did, JFK knew how to market. His heroism in World War II became a national story--a story reprinted again and again at the behest of his powerful father, Joseph.
Jackie Kennedy epitomized class and glamour. She campaigned in Spanish for her husband, became a fashion icon, and enchanted Americans from coast to coast.
Final Score: 60%
Adjusted Score: 40%
Kennedy's military experience would have come under scrutiny (3). So would his nightlife, and by extension, his marriage (-2).
What do these scores tell us? They show us how much image matters . . . and how much politics matter. Take, for example, the 1960 election. We have already seen that JFK's final image score in 1960 was 60%. Here is Richard Nixon's:
Richard Nixon, 1960
Suits vs. Boots: 0
Nixon's humble beginnings cancelled out his suitlike attitude.
Nixon was slightly shorter than JFK, but he looked bad during the first debate.
Nixon was young, but didn't capture young hearts; he was experienced, but Eisenhower undercut his broader appeal.
Nixon's widow's peak didn't hide his sweat during the first debate. His slicked-back hair and constant five o'clock shadow didn't help, either.
Beer Buddy: -4
Nixon seemed shifty and grim. You wouldn't want him on your bowling team.
Nixon served honorably in the navy.
Pat Nixon might have seemed like an ice queen, but she gave Nixon the all-American family image.
Final Score: -10%
So JFK had an image advantage of 70%. Why was 1960 such a narrow election? It was narrow because Nixon had the power of a popular incumbent president, Nixon had a terrific grasp of the issues, and Nixon was a tremendously energetic campaigner. If we take image out of the picture, Nixon clearly should have won the 1960 election over an inexperienced senator from Massachusetts who routinely missed committee meetings. The simple fact is that if Kennedy had been bald, he never would have been president.
Let's look at another close election: the election of 2000. Here are George W. Bush's image ratings vs. Al Gore's image ratings:
Suits vs. Boots
George W. Bush had a 26% image advantage, based primarily on the fact that Bush seemed like a genial guy, while Gore seemed stiffer than a two-by-four. Yet we spent a month after the election sorting out the winner. The tightness of the 2000 election testifies largely to the power of incumbency--the Clinton factor.
If Bush hadn't worn a cowboy hat, he would have lost the election.
That's the power of image.
High image rating differentials, when combined with political advantages, lead to blowouts.