Dressing the part of a future president

By Ali Noller
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

He didn’t look like a man who could be elected president in 13 months.

Wearing a navy-blue shirt with sleeves rolled up, carefully pleated khaki pants and brown penny loafers, he easily could have been your father or your high school history professor.

Instead, the man with the carefully crafted message was Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., stumping in front of a few hundred UI students in September during one of many stops on his college tour across America.

Days earlier, in an appearance in California, a different Kerry spoke to a group of young professionals. But instead of "John Kerry, working man," the image was "John Kerry, serious politician," wearing a navy blazer and a red pin-striped tie.

Such attention to apparel is part of a carefully crafted image that candidates create when running for public office, UI political science assistant professor David Redlawsk said.

"Generally, you’re going to think about the nature of the place [you are speaking to]," said Redlawsk, who recently completed a study on candidate image. “In the television age, the press makes a big deal out of image.”

For some young voters, the chameleon-like changes a politician undergoes seem superficial and add to their growing disenchantment with the political process.

"I don't want a candidate to be sugarcoated, or feel like they have to dress and act a certain way," said Justin Cloak, a UI junior. "I want a candidate who is going to lay it all out there and who isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers along the way."

But since the late 1950s, when American voters began to be inundated with televised election coverage, a candidate’s dress and appearance have played an important role.

Richard Nixon battled television when running for re-election against John Kennedy in 1960. In the first televised debate, TV viewers declared Kennedy the winner after watching a nervous, sweaty Nixon debate a controlled, smooth-talking Kennedy.

Nixon’s television image - unnatural compared to Kennedy's - may have cost him the election, campaign analysts said after his defeat.

In 1975, Jimmy Carter took a different approach, wearing sweaters instead of jackets and ties for campaign appearances. Campaign pundits wrote Carter off for his easy-going approach - based solely on his lack of a shirt and tie. Voters obviously felt differently.

Kim Rubey, a campaign official with the John Edwards campaign, said the issues are what really resonate with voters, but image is important, too.

Her candidate, a young-looking 50-year-old freshman senator, has faced voters who think he is too inexperienced, in politics and in general.

"You always want the television image to portray the real candidate," Rubey said. "I certainly think a candidate's appearance in newspapers or on television sparks interest. Every time voters are introduced to Sen. Edwards, we want the image to be polished and professional."

Edwards isn't afraid to appeal to his humble beginnings to project an image, either. In TV ads aired across Iowa, viewers see Edwards wearing a blue-collared shirt, talking about his own blue-collar beginnings and projecting the image of a working man.

Edwards' national media consultant, David Axelrod, said he adjusts his candidates' presentation to what they are most comfortable with.

For some, the "every-man" approach is harder to pull off. Campaign flyers of career politician Kerry sitting on a tractor, wearing a denim shirt, were almost laughable to the UI's Redlawsk.

"You want to project an image that fits, but he didn’t look comfortable [posing]," Redlawsk said.

Comfort level with images also was an issue in the 1988 presidential campaign, when a rigid-looking Michael Dukakis sat in a tank, wearing a poor-fitting helmet and military fatigues. Although this image ran in a negative ad by Bush supporters, the damage was done for Dukakis, portrayed as being incapable of handling the U.S. military.

"It’s an inevitable thing for human beings," Redlawsk said. "We react quickly to image and pry a lot of information from it. The goal of a campaign is to project the best possible image. If it's different from who the candidate really is, it's equivalent to lying about anything else."

At a steak fry sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on Sept. 13, candidates tromped through the mud of an Indianola balloon field to speak to Iowans about their views. There were no ties on this crowd, including former president Bill Clinton, dressed in denim and a deep-blue button-down shirt.

This relaxed approach in Iowa is because of a common misconception that everyone who lives in Iowa is a farmer, Redlawsk said.

UI student and University Democrats President Megan Heneke said this carefully crafted image can be taken too far at times.

"Watching Dick Gephardt in a pie-eating contest or John Kerry’s barnstorming Iowa tour, they are appealing to quintessential Iowa," Heneke said. "Sometimes it's cute and fun, but it's all about creating an image."

And appealing to the image they think is Iowa --all in order to get votes from Iowans.

"Iowans are greedy," Heneke said. "We want to see the candidates a lot. The candidates tailor their image to give Iowans what they want."

Even if it takes wearing a plaid shirt and perching on some carefully placed farm machinery.

E-mail Ali Noller at [email protected]

This story was published in the Sac (City, IA) Sun on December 9, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by Iowa Presidential Politics.com. This site produced by the "Presidential Politics" class in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.