Yea, he's easy on the eyes, but I think he's better than he looks.
Democratic Faces That Could Launch Thousands of Votes
With a Parade of Attractive Candidates, the Party May Benefit From the
Politics of Beauty
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2006; A01
AUBURN, N.Y. -- Maybe Democratic candidate Michael Arcuri is running
strong in this Republican House district because he pledges to expand
health coverage, balance the budget and raise the minimum wage.
Or maybe it's his piercing Italian eyes and runner's physique.
"He is pretty good-looking," observed Paula Ferrin with admiration, as
the 47-year-old district attorney worked the crowd at a local senior
"What we want is brains, honey," scolded her friend Rose Oliver.
"True," Ferrin answered, "but handsome doesn't hurt."
The research is unambiguous that Ferrin is right: Attractive
politicians have an edge over not-so-attractive ones. The phenomenon
is resonating especially this year. By a combination of luck and
design, Democrats seem to be fielding an uncommonly high number of
uncommonly good-looking candidates.
The beauty gap between the parties, some on Capitol Hill muse, could
even be a factor in who controls Congress after Election Day.
Democratic operatives do not publicly say that they went out of their
way this year to recruit candidates with a high hotness quotient.
Privately, however, they acknowledge that, as they focused on finding
the most dynamic politicians to challenge vulnerable Republicans, it
did not escape their notice that some of the most attractive prospects
were indeed often quite attractive.
There is a certain logic to the trend. Back in 1994, when Republicans
seized power in Congress from Democrats, the GOP had a number of
fresh-faced challengers who knocked off incumbents who had grown worse
for wear after years of committee hearings and fundraising receptions.
This year, it is the Democrats who have several ripe opportunities to
unseat Republicans, some of whom have grown gray and portly during
their years in power.
To gain the 15 seats needed to recapture House control, the party is
targeting about 40 GOP-leaning districts, including New York's 24th,
where veteran Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R) is retiring and where
Arcuri is campaigning.
In most of the races, the Democratic challengers look a lot like
standard-issue politicians -- not likely to impress the judges at
Atlantic City. But there are others who, while they might not have
movie-star looks, are certainly well above the C-SPAN median.
The list is decidedly unscientific, but it includes several whose
names come up often on Capitol Hill for reasons other than their
policy platforms. Among those on it, in addition to Arcuri, are Brad
Ellsworth, a swaggering Indiana sheriff; businesswoman Gabrielle
Giffords of Arizona, who has chiseled features and rides a motorcycle;
and Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a strapping former quarterback for
the Washington Redskins. In Tennessee, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., a lean
and stylish 36-year-old, has drawn admiring looks.
Republican Bob Corker, who is running against Ford, has acknowledged
the disparity. "I know I'm not as good-looking," Corker said. He hopes
his business experience will compensate.
The crop of eye-pleasing pols has party operatives calculating the
politics of beauty. "There's a fine line, and you can't cross it,"
said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional
Campaign Committee. Voters don't like men who look like pretty boys or
women who resemble bimbos. "If you're too good-looking, people won't
take you seriously," Emanuel said.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional
Committee, agreed that attractive candidates often have an early
advantage. But he said voters' decisions in the polling booth are
rarely skin-deep, especially in a closely contested race.
"When each side is spending four or five million, people know the
records, and it doesn't have the same impact," he said. He noted that
Shuler's popularity has declined in recent weeks following reports
that his real estate firm was late in paying taxes. "That's gone back
to being a close race."
The two candidates here in this Upstate New York district have similar
résumés. Both Arcuri and his GOP opponent, state Sen. Raymond A.
Meier, are lawyers. The two first crossed paths in 1985 while working
on opposite sides of a local election recount. Polls showed they
entered the race with roughly even name identification. They have the
same Oneida County political base.
Meier's advantage is that the 24th District is home to 45,000 more
registered Republicans than Democrats. But Arcuri is a popular
prosecutor, the first Democrat elected to the post in 40 years. He's
also tall and thin, with dark, gray-flecked hair and sharp features.
Meier, who is 53, wears glasses, and his hair is brown and thinning.
His look would seem to be perfectly pleasant but nondescript.
Arcuri's image is plastered all over his campaign materials, from yard
signs to the trading cards that are distributed at campaign events. In
his official campaign photo, he leans forward with one hand on his
hip, looking suave and casual. His Web site shows him finishing a
His political friends tease him about his fashion-magazine persona,
but they acknowledge that it's a valuable asset. "He's a young,
good-looking guy," said Charlie Evangelista, Ontario County Democratic
Committee chairman. "He's going to connect with people."
Arcuri's theory is that voters have an immediate, visceral reaction to
candidates that, if powerful enough, can trump ideology or party
affiliation. "How do you get around the status quo? You look for
younger, energetic faces," he said. But while people may decide in an
instant whether or not they are able to vote for him, he said, "then
they have to know you can do the job."
He added, "I spend a lot of time assuring people I can be congressional."
His theory might be correct. An independent poll in the district
released last night showed him with a 10-point lead.
Some of the academic research on beauty and voting goes back decades,
to the early 1970s. In 1990, political scientist Lee Sigelman, then at
the University of Arizona, posited that Democrats were losing ground
nationally, despite an advantage in voter registration, because their
looks were a turnoff. He rated all governors and members of Congress
on an ugliness scale and found that of the 26 least attractive, 25
The playing field these days is more level. Research has shown that if
candidates invest a little effort in their looks, the payoff can be
huge. Campaign consultants hover around candidates, ordering them to
change their hairstyles, get in shape and update their wardrobes. "The
bar has been raised, without question," said Sigelman, now a George
Washington University political science professor.
He singled out three Maryland statewide candidates, Republican Senate
nominee Michael S. Steele and gubernatorial rivals Robert L. Ehrlich
Jr. (R) and Martin O'Malley (D), "as playing the image game really
well." Politicians today, said Sigelman, strive for "the personality
and looks of talk show hosts." The goal is to be "well turned out."
One candidate who made a high-impact adjustment is Diane Farrell. The
Connecticut Democrat used to wear her blond hair pulled back tight,
but after a gentle nudge from a campaign aide, she allowed it to hang
loose for a more natural, relaxed look.
The looks factor can be maddening for the opposition. One writer on an
anti-Shuler blog expressed annoyance at the candidate's wife, "with
all her quips about how cute Shuler is. What a way to decide how to
Perhaps not surprisingly, research has shown that voters who are
easily swayed by social trends tend to favor more attractive
candidates. Conversely, people who resist social trends prefer
The latest wave of research examines a possible root of political
attraction: how closely candidates and voters resemble each other. A
Stanford University study this year suggested that little-known
candidates can increase their electoral support by as much as 20
percentage points by tweaking visual features on their campaign
materials so they look slightly more like a targeted group of voters,
for instance Asians or Hispanics.
The less voters know about the candidates, as in races such as the
Arcuri-Meier contest with no incumbent, the more looks seem to matter.
An examination of a 2001 British local election by a team of Texas
Tech University and University of Plymouth researchers found that, in
the absence of facts, people who are considered attractive by survey
respondents are more likely to win.
The findings were presented to the American Political Science
Association's 2003 annual meeting, with the caveat that they "may
offend notions of democracy that candidates should compete fairly and
on the basis of issues not appearance."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company