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Do looks matter in politics?

Jun 6, 2017

On June 1st, I talked about Gretchen Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader and now the leading candidate for next year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

During an interview during last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Whitmer told me that when you look at all the candidates, “I’m the one that looks most like John Engler.”

She was referring to her political experience. But radio doesn’t have pictures, and I cannot assume that anyone listening knows what either looks like, especially since former Governor Engler has been out of office for more than 14 years.

So I said that “Whitmer is a trim woman who was usually ranked as Michigan’s most attractive legislator by bored reporters who like to make lists” of such things, whereas Engler was a very large man who was not a matinee idol.

Well, this provoked criticism from people who said that this was sexist, and that discussing a woman’s looks was totally inappropriate. But I disagree, and this is why.

Were Whitmer a biochemist, or a candidate to be president of the University of Michigan, what she looked like indeed would be totally irrelevant. But politics is something else again.

Everyone who has studied the famous 1960 presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon knows that Kennedy’s matinee idol looks were a major factor.

Perhaps the key event of that campaign was history’s first televised presidential debate. Those few voters who heard the debate on radio overwhelmingly agreed Nixon won it. But the vast majority of people who watched it thought Kennedy was the clear winner.

Kennedy was tanned and charismatic; Nixon, who had been sick, looked like a nervous jewel thief who needed a shave. When you run for a major office, looks are often a factor.

But the thrust of my essay was that Whitmer may be the most qualified candidate, because she has experience in Michigan government. Neither Democrat Jennifer Granholm nor Republican Rick Snyder had any, and it is very clear this hurt their effectiveness.

Marissa Perry, a law student at the University of Michigan, had a different and more legitimate criticism. She thought it was unfair of me to ask why Whitmer would want to be governor, given that she, quote “has two teenage daughters, a fairly new husband, and is an accomplished lawyer.” Perry said I wouldn’t have done that if her name were George.

Fair enough. But what I am really guilty of is inadequate explanation. Three years ago, I asked Whitmer why she didn’t run for governor or attorney general. I thought she would have been a much stronger candidate than the people the Democrats did nominate, who both lost.

Whitmer then told me she felt she needed to spend time with her daughters. I respected that; if you make a serious run for governor, it means two years of not seeing your family very much. Her kids were 11 and 9 then, and are 15 and 13 now.

That doesn’t seem very different to me. Frankly, my guess is that another factor is that the electoral landscape looks much better for Democrats now than it did in 2014.

Judging women based on their appearance is dead wrong. But to pretend looks don’t matter in campaigns is faux political correctness, something I am not willing to do.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.