Minnesota politicians must balance message with image

Libby George

In 1960, little-known U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., debated favored Republican presidential candidate Vice President Richard Nixon before an estimated 75 million television viewers.

In the following decades, the images of political candidates, both public and televised, have become a fundamental element of campaigning.

“Kennedy came across as suave and composed,” said Kim Johnson, University professor and director of graduate studies in the department of design, housing and apparel. “Nixon came across as sweaty and disheveled.”

Radio listeners reported Nixon as the clear winner, but television viewers favored Kennedy, who won the November election by the closest of margins.

Johnson said image was the primary factor in Kennedy’s win, and appearance is just as pivotal in today’s political environment.

“(Appearance) makes a dramatic difference,” Johnson said. “We think that we should be beyond the surface, but we have a certain idea in our heads of what political leaders are supposed to look like.

“People look for consistency in how you dress and what you say, and if it’s not there, then it’s not credible.”

With the November elections approaching, Minnesota candidates have struggled to balance their message with their image.

“(Clothing) has been one of my struggles,” Green party gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel said. “I want to look good so I don’t distract from my issues.”

Pentel also said he thinks dress can be a factor in voters’ decisions.

“We have a society of style. There are a portion of people who are voting for fashion consciousness,” Pentel said. “In that way, I want to give people the impressions that I am a serious candidate and I can do the job.”

University political science professor William Flannigan said there is some validity to that view.

“The little bit of research that has been done has suggested that unconsciously, people vote based on appearance,” Flannigan said. “Candidates have to dress in a way that they look serious. If it’s too casual, people won’t take them seriously.”

Richard Tostenson, general consultant for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty, said although candidates at the state level don’t generally put as many resources into consultants as those on the national level, it is still a factor for voters.

“I think the clothing is a direct representation to a politician’s constituents that they represent them,” Tostenson said. “It depends on the politician and the personality, and it depends on the message and what they are comfortable wearing.”

Jim Farrell, campaign spokesman for incumbent U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., said too much attention to dress can harm a campaign.

“If a politician dresses up in a costume based upon the group he is speaking to, he will look phony and people won’t believe what he’s saying,” Farrell said.

Farrell also said although appearance is in the consciousness of voters, the resources devoted to image consultants are not always well spent.

“The famous episode of going wildly overboard was Al Gore,” Farrell said. “They were paying 15 grand a month to advise him to wear earth tones, and appear as an ‘alpha male,’ and clearly that did not work.”

Despite his consultants, analysts attribute Gore’s loss in the election to a stoic appearance with which voters could not relate.

Regardless of analysts, Tostenson said he does not attach much importance to dress and image.

“In the world of 30-second sound bytes, the message is what’s important,” Tostenson said. “I don’t think most candidates pay attention to what they are wearing.”

Flannigan also said there are more important factors in elections than physical appearance.

“The way candidates speak about issues and problems is important,” Flannigan said. “Partisan loyalties and partisan antipathies also play a role.”

However, Johnson said he disagreed, particularly concerning student voters and young voters.

“A lot of people aren’t going to do the research, and aren’t going to look into candidates and what they’re doing,” Johnson said. “They are going to say, ‘This person looks like a senator.’ “

If Johnson is right, Pentel said he will not be happy with the election.

“I just want to say that I hope this is a campaign of substance over style,” Pentel said. “Then I think I have a good chance.”