As it’s become clear in the last few days that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is genuinely rethinking his past refusals to consider a run for president in 2012, whispers have begun about his weight and how (or whether) it would impact a run for national office.
“It’s sad to say but physical appearance does play a part in how voters view candidates,” said Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman in the Bush White House. “While I think it’s too late for Christie to run, I also believe that his accomplishments and his common sense are more important attributes than his appearance. But appearance is indeed a factor.”
That Christie is overweight is not in question. In an interview with CNN back in June, Christie acknowledged that he has “been struggling for a long time” with his weight, adding: “I know that it would be better for my kids if I got it more under control, and so I do feel a sense of guilt at times about that.”
The harder question to answer is whether Christie’s weight impacts his chances — positively or negatively — at being the party’s nominee or the president of the United States.
And, on that, opinions differ.
One line of argument — as explained by Fleischer above — is that appearance matters in every facet of life. So it’s natural to assume that how someone looks does factor into how appealing they are to voters.
And, it’s also true that in the television era of politics, no man has been elected who was extremely overweight. (Of course, assuming weight is the deciding factor for a voter is a logical fallacy along the same lines of assuming that bald people don’t get elected because all of our recent presidents have had healthy heads of hair.)
There are also those who suggest that Christie’s weight — coupled with the stress of a life in politics — is a health concern, pointing out that he was briefly hospitalized earlier in July for asthma problems. When he was released from the hospital, Christie acknowledged: “The weight exacerbates everything. The lighter I am, the healthier I’ll be.”
Christie backers can, however, point to his 2009 race against Gov. Jon Corzine (D) as evidence that using his physical appearance against Christie could well backfire.
In one Corzine ad, a narrator accuses Christie of “throwing his weight around” while a picture of the Republican getting out of a parked car is shown in slow motion on screen.
While Corzine’s campaign denied the ad was about the Republican’s appearance, Christie seized on the ad — urging Corzine to “man up” in a radio interview with Don Imus. “If you say I’m fat let’s go, let’s talk about it,” he added.
Jon Lerner, a consultant who did work for the Republican Governors Association in New Jersey in 2009, explained that the attack ad “backfired” on Corzine because Christie “skillfully handled it and used it to make himself more real to voters and make Corzine appeal politically manipulative.”
As the 2009 example makes clear, raising the issue of Christie’s weight is a delicate and dangerous one that carries as much potential risk as reward for the person bringing it up.
“Democrats used to attack Reagan’s age because attacking him on issues was a loser,’ said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant. “If this is the best the liberals can do, Christie can handle this.”
But, how should Christie handle it if his weight were an issue — whether spoken or, more likely, unspoken — for voters?
Focus not what he looks like but on what he says and does, according to Jan van Lohuizen, who handled polling for President George W. Bush.
“I think that in today’s economy and with today’s fiscal troubles, the voters will go with someone who is good rather than with someone who looks good,” explained Lohuizen.
Several other unaligned Republican strategists added that Christie’s size was in keeping with his larger-than-life persona and, as such, would not ultimately be a major political impediment for him.
“Everything about Chris Christie — from his size, his style, his substance — all of it is real,” said one senior party strategist. “There’s nothing slick about this guy. He’s bold, honest, and conservative. And in this environment, that’s what will stand out.”
While it’s impossible to deny that appearance matters in all aspects of life — including politics — it’s also extremely difficult to raise the specter of obesity in the context of a political campaign.
The chances that such an attack can boomerang against the person who launches it are high. And, with large numbers of Americans struggling with weight in their own right, it's uniquely possible that Christie’s own struggles make him a more relatable and empathetic figure — always a plus in politics.
In short, will people talk about his size if Christie runs? Probably. Will it play a significant role in whether he wins or loses? Probably not.
More Christie coverage on PostPolitics