The Magic Formula
Sorry, folks. There is no magic formula that can unerringly predict winners and losers in presidential elections. A haircut may cause a sensation in one election (JFK, 1960) and fall flat in another (John Kerry, 2004). Height may be a boon to one candidate (Lincoln, 1860 and 1864) but a bust for another (Winfield Scott, 1852). Age may demonstrate seasoned experience (Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952 and 1956) or decrepitude (Bob Dole, 1996).
Acting like a cowboy may thrill voters (George W. Bush, 2000 and 2004) or it may alienate them (Barry Goldwater, 1964). Acting aloof may cripple one candidate (Al Gore, 2000) but boost another (Woodrow Wilson, 1912 and 1916). Military experience may ensure victory (Ulysses S. Grant, 1868 and 1872), or it may spell defeat (George McClellan, 1864). An outspoken wife may hurt a candidate (Gerald Ford, 1976) or aid him (Bill Clinton, 1992).
Still, we can spot trends. Americans generally like boots rather than suits; tall men rather than short men; candidates above age fifty; nominees with good but inexpensive haircuts; people we wouldn't mind sitting next to at a bar; men with military experience, if that military experience is important enough; and men with wives who aren't catty or loud.
And we can form educated opinions about each of these factors for each candidate. For some candidates, certain factors never become an issue: the first lady issue, for instance, played no part in any election until the mid-twentieth century, except for Andrew Jackson (1824 and 1828) and Grover Cleveland (1888 and 1892). But by measuring the impact, pro or con, of each image issue, we can quickly determine which presidential candidate has the image advantage.
Here, then, are the top ten image candidates of all time. Each applicable factor has been ranked on a scale from -5 (worst) to 5 (best). After adding together the applicable factors, we determine a percentage grade for each candidate by dividing the number of points by the number of points possible. Every election is different, so we can't assume that just because Bill Clinton's draft dodging didn't hurt him in 1992, it wouldn't have hurt him against Dwight D. Eisenhower. To that end, we have added an adjusted score--how would these candidates fare in today's political climate? It is worth noting that every one of these politicians was a master of image. There is no doubt that each would have adapted to changing times, so our adjusted scores are not necessarily the final word.
1. Warren G. Harding, 1920
Warren G. Harding was the purest image politician in American history. Nominated for his good looks, Harding died in office after his administration subjected the country to a series of devastating corruption scandals. Rarely has image contrasted so sharply with ability.
At six feet tall, Harding was solidly built and powerful looking. He looked fit as a fiddle (and he was apparently ready for love--at least according to Nan Britton).
At fifty-five, Harding was the perfect age. He seemed healthful, tanned, vital. He radiated an air of solemnity and gravitas.
His thick silvery hair was an aesthetically pleasing addition to his bronzed, chiseled face.
Beer Buddy: 5
Everyone liked Warren G. Harding--even those who thought him an intellectual midget. "His home people declare him as sincere as Roosevelt; affable as McKinley, and with Blaine's capacity for inspiring friendships," wrote campaign biographer Joe Mitchell Chapple. 1 Harding's penchant for making friends served him ill in office--his "friends" betrayed him repeatedly. "I have no trouble with my enemies," Harding once declared. "I can take care of my enemies all right. It's my friends that keep me up at night." 2
Final Score: 100%
Woodrow Wilson successfully put to rest the suits vs. boots debate, and Harding was the beneficiary. He had no military experience, but he didn't need any. His wife, while helpful, had no impact on his image.
Adjusted Score: 68%
Harding could easily be elected today. His affable image, combined with his impressive personal appearance, would remain a powerful asset. Harding was lucky to run in 1920 in one respect: the media did not investigate his sexual exploits. Harding was quite promiscuous--during the 1920 election, he paid off a former mistress to keep her mouth shut. This would certainly become a major campaign issue today (-3).
2. George Washington, 1788 and 1792
General Washington ran unopposed--twice. Potential opponents were smart to stay out of his way.
Suits vs. Boots: 4
Washington was a boots candidate, all the way, a rich and cultured wilderness man. Experience in the French and Indian War lent him an air of adventure; marrying Martha Washington didn't hurt his bank account. Washington loved his plantation and lavished his attention on it. Here was a true American Cincinnatus.
Standing somewhere between six feet two inches and six feet three and a half inches, Washington towered over his compatriots. John Adams suspected that Washington's height lent him an amorphous leadership quality. Washington was, literally and figuratively, a giant among men.
The "Father of Our Country" didn't take his title lightly. Washington often relied on his age to garner support, citing his graying hair and weakened eyes as evidence of his lifelong commitment to his country. It worked to perfection. Marvin Kitman wrote: "He did it the way Ronald Reagan would have done it." 3
The man was George Washington. Need we say more?
Final Score: 95%
Washington's hair didn't matter very much, though he wore his own and powdered it. Martha didn't matter much either--which is fortunate for George, since George married her for her money. As for Washington's personality, it too was ignored. The man was a demigod in his own time, and no one expected a demigod to pal around with mere mortals.
Adjusted Score: 37%
Today's media would have savaged Washington. The Father of Our Country would have faced scrutiny over his lavish, unbootslike spending habits (2), questionable military tactics (4), gold-digging (-3) and his cold austerity (-3), though he would have gained points for keeping his hair (3).
3. Abraham Lincoln, 1864
Lincoln benefited from political divisions and his strong wartime leadership. Also, the South couldn't vote. Nonetheless, it pays to remember that Honest Abe wasn't just a great man--he was a terrific politician.
Suits vs. Boots: 5
Abe Lincoln revivified log cabin imagery, spoke often of his wilderness upbringing, and became known far and wide as the Rail-splitter. He was folksy, witty, and wise. In short, Abe was a paramount boots candidate.
Lincoln stood a full six feet four inches. Lincoln's impressive height had been perhaps his most recognizable feature since 1858, when Lincoln debated "Little Giant" Stephen Douglas, who stood a mere five feet four inches. Now, Lincoln faced "Little Napoleon," General George McClellan, five feet eight inches. No contest.
Lincoln's beard was already iconic. When Lincoln grew out his beard to please an eleven-year-old girl, he created a political image that shaped the next fifty years of presidential facial hair. Lincoln's beard helped round out his gaunt, rather ugly face, giving him an appearance of melancholy wisdom. McClellan's handlebar mustache was stylish, but it contributed to his image as a dandy.
Beer Buddy: 5
Lincoln's modern image overshadows the fact that he had an arch wit, a folksy sense of humor, and a gentle disposition. Lincoln's storytelling prowess was legendary. Plus, he had once been a bartender.
Lincoln had very little military experience, but his Civil War leadership paid electoral dividends, particularly after major battle victories by Generals Sherman and Grant in the lead-up to the 1864 election. It didn't hurt that Lincoln had already repudiated McClellan's military leadership by firing him in 1863.
Final Score: 92%
Lincoln's age made little difference in the 1864 election; fortunately for him, neither did his wife's nuttiness and Confederate relatives.
Adjusted Score: 25%
Lincoln's beard worked for three reasons: beards were popular, Lincoln was ugly, and Lincoln's beard had already been emblazoned in the public mind. If Lincoln ran today, none of those factors would apply. His beard would seem like a shoddy cover-up for his unappealing mug. Being a practical politician, Lincoln would remain clean-shaven--and a clean-shaven Lincoln was not a pretty sight (-2). Lincoln's height would have helped less than it did in 1864; he was gawky and awkward looking, particularly since his size contrasted sharply with his high-pitched voice (2). Mary Todd would have hurt Lincoln's candidacy--her mental problems and three Confederate brothers would have damaged the president (-4).
4. Teddy Roosevelt, 1904
War hero. Trust-buster. Big game hunter. Politician extraordinaire. The candidate with the infectious grin and heavy mustache was one of the most popular presidents in American history. After all, who could dislike the man who inspired the teddy bear?
Suits vs. Boots: 5
"Now look!" Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio exclaimed upon hearing of TR's election, "That damned cowboy is President of the United States." 4 Heavily image conscious, Teddy hunted regularly, rode horses--and made sure never to get caught by the press while playing golf. His early cowboy ...