By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2006
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 center.
"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 marathon.
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 were Democrats.
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 vote!!"
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 unattractive candidates.
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."