Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Do You Need to be Thin to be a Politician?

Summary: Tensions are high in the New Jersey gubernatorial race as Corzine hints that Christie is too fat!

The gubernatorial race in New Jersey has been about as dirty as we expected it to be, but it appears to be hitting a new low.

Governor Jon Corzine (D-NJ) recently released this seemingly harmless attack ad (as far as attack ads go) about his Republican opponent, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie:

But then a post on RealClearPolitics.com reviewed the ad and said that by using the line “threw his weight around” Corzine was pulling the “weight card” on Christie, who is notably overweight.

Even if it was intentional, meant to invoke a subconscious response from the voters, it would be impossible to prove. But then Corzine was asked about the ad.

From an interview with the Press of Atlantic City:

"People who flash their credentials or use their offices to accomplish something, people say 'people threw their weight around,'" Corzine said.

Asked directly if he thought Christie was fat, Corzine touched his bare head, smiled and said, "Am I bald?"

There is a lot to say about this new development - particularly what it says about our culture and (more importantly for this blog) America’s voting habits. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com - however - stole our thunder.

From his recent post:

This, insofar is it goes, is true: Chris Christie is a large man. And one thing that's certainly true of Americans is that they don't elect very many fat governors. Running through pictures of the 50 sitting governors, I come up with only about 10 (20%) who are distinctly overweight, and only 3 (6%) -- Haley Barbour, Bill Richardson, and Sonny Perdue -- who are clearly obese. This compares with percentages on the order of 65 percent and 30 percent for the U.S. adult population. The skinny on the numbers after the jump.

At this point, Silver lists each governor in the country and humorously comments on their physical stature.

He continues…

Now, some of the cases are debatable -- my classifications are probably a bit conservative given that overweight is the new normal in America. Perhaps someone like Brad Henry or Oklahoma or Tim Kaine of Virgina would meet the clinical definition of overweight, along with a few others. Still, it's clear that overweight governors are considerably underrepresented as a percentage of the U.S. population. As an electoral handicap, it probably doesn't rival being atheist or (avowedly!) gay, but I'd probably bet on the skinny woman before the fat man, all else being equal.

It would take a lot of work to figure this out, but I'd guess that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. We've elected quite a few fat Presidents ... William Howard Taft, Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt -- and Bill Clinton really, though he wore it well. And those men (with the partial exception of Clinton) were elected at a time where being obese was far less typical than it is today.

Certainly, you can see where the Corzine campaign is hoping to go with this one. Let your mind run wild with the not-so-subtle implications: Christie is a fat slob who is underprepared for the pressures of office, a fat cat who will sell out to the special interests, etc. Undoubtedly, their crack research staff uncovered some evidence that Christie's weight is a vulnerability, or at least could be associated with other negatives about him.

But it's one thing for your opponent's weight to be a vulnerability, and another thing to point that out to the voters without looking like an a-hole.

There have been many, many campaigns waged over the years that deftly (or not-so-deftly) implied that the opponent was a closet homosexual, Muslim, communist, or atheist. But being fat isn't like those other things: it's something that everyone can see for themselves. There is no plus-sized closet for fat people, so to speak. And our nation's relationship with obesity and obese people is complicated. Although fat people are perhaps by default objects of disdain, it doesn't take very much to turn them into everyman-ish Bubbas -- objects of sympathy.

Corzine remains in a much better position than he was a month ago. But if this is his campaign's idea of an endgame, he's liable to send Christie's big, fat ass to Trenton.

Well said.

The only thing Silver seemed to miss was along the lines of one point he made: our politicians are mostly skinnier than they used to be.

One likely correlation is this: as food has become easier to produce over the past 100 years, overeating (and eating the wrong things) has become more common for the average American than it has for the rich American. In fact, wealthier Americans are more likely to be thin today because they can afford healthier meals, to get exercise equipment, and go the gym.

Malnutrition is just as serious for working-class Americans as it has ever been - the only difference is that malnutrition is no longer synonymous with hunger for them.

What this suggests is not that it’s necessarily easier for a skinny person to be elected because of their low weight (although it may), it could simply be that the skinny person is more likely to be elected because they can afford to self-fund their campaigns (like Corzine) or at least significantly help their campaign with their own resources.

It would be interesting for political scientists to study exactly what the effect of weight is on a candidate’s chances.

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