By Jordy Yager - 06/08/10 10:00 AM EDT
Why does Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) take off her “blingy” jewelry when she goes to talk with veterans? Why does Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) still wear the bright orange shirts that gained him notoriety as a lawyer? And why does Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) own three pairs of cowboy boots?
As lawmakers enter the grueling campaign season, many are re-examining the way they present themselves in order to be ready when voters ask: Are they one of us? Are they comfortable in their own skin? Do they fit the image of what I want my politician to look like?
Take Wamp, for instance. The eight-term congressman is running for Tennessee governor, and he knows Tennesseans expect a certain style from their politicians. In his visits to the state’s 95 counties, he will alternately shed his coat and tie and roll up his sleeves or make sure his “top button is buttoned,” depending on the area’s customs and culture.
“If you are running for governor of Tennessee and you don’t have at least two pairs of cowboy boots, you’re out of uniform,” Wamp said in an interview near the House floor. “So I have three pair of cowboy boots.
But the truth is I had them before I ran for governor, because I am a Tennessean.”
As much as politicians want their campaigns to be issues-based, most acknowledge that what they wear and how they present themselves physically plays a part in their ability to convey their message.
When Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.) was back home several weeks ago, campaigning for the Senate, he said a voter approached him and told him, “I’m going to support you because I believe you’re one of us.”
“The important thing is to connect with your audience and to deliver the message you want to get across, and sometimes that means you have to dress in such a way that they can relate to you,” said Boozman, who owns a farm in Arkansas and often campaigns in khakis and a collared shirt with the top button undone.
“Sometimes it’s appropriate that you dress like the congressman, sometimes it’s appropriate that you dress — I’ve got a background in farming — that you dress like the farmer,” he said.
Similarly, when Berkley goes to visit with veterans in her home state, as she did this past Memorial Day, she is aware that what she wears carries a strong message.
“If I’m at the veterans cemetery … I’m not dressing up and wearing the good jewelry,” she said before leaving for the holiday recess. “I’m talking to my veterans and families who have lost loved ones, and I wear my red, my white and my blue, and I’m very proud of it. If you show up any other way … you can kiss your veterans goodbye. They’re not going to be forgiving.”
In past political campaigns, physical appearance has been a make-or-break factor for some politicians.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) was criticized for her $150,000 wardrobe, paid for by the Republican National Committee, in her failed 2008 White House bid with then-presidential candidate Sen. John McCain
(R-Ariz.). McCain suffered heavy scrutiny for wearing a pair of $520 Italian loafers while campaigning.
During the same presidential race, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) reported receiving two $400 haircuts. The revelation put him under heavy fire, partially because a central message in his campaign was alleviating national poverty.
Berkley said voters’ financial struggles are bound to have an effect on this year’s election cycle.
“You have to be very sensitive to what your constituents are going through right now,” she said. “In Las Vegas, we’re having a very tough time. I have no appetite to shop. I have no appetite to get all dolled up.”
Image and physical appearance have always had a role in politics, dating back to George Washington, whose stateliness and good looks played a part in winning over many of his skeptical peers, according to Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University.
“[Politicians] are lying to themselves if they don’t admit that it plays a part,” Ribuffo said. “Now, there’s always a possibility they can spin it by saying they’re the more dumpy candidate or ‘I’m not as slick as my opponent.’ But in politics, as in the rest of life, it’s better to be good looking than not.”
Indeed, several lawmakers The Hill spoke with for this article made self-deprecating remarks and pointed to their own ugliness as proof that physical appearance played little role in their election.
“I think attitude and demeanor play a much greater role,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), wearing a black suit typical of Capitol Hill.
“Just look at us,” said Coburn, who often wears cowboy boots to work. “Look at how ugly people like me get elected. Just go look at the Senate. The proof is in the pudding.”
And Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the president of the House’s freshman class, balked altogether at the idea of physical appearance playing a role in campaigns.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “There’s plenty to worry about. I’m not worrying about that. What kind of question is that?”
But a recent campaign success story says otherwise, said Dennis Johnson, a political science professor at George Washington University. While issues and voter discontent were a factor in Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) election, the former model’s good looks and style played an unquestionable role, he said.
And then there’s the famous 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, a televised event that rewarded the dashing lawmaker from Massachusetts with an overwhelming amount of support, mostly due to his fit and tanned appearance, both Ribuffo and Johnson said. Nixon, on the other hand, had spent the day campaigning and looked worn and ragged, they noted.
For today’s politicians, though, it all comes back to being comfortable in your own skin.
Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), in one of the House’s many competitive races, said the campaign image is about staying true to your own style.
And while Grayson may have traded in the infamous pink cowboy boots that would catch the jury’s attention during his days as a lawyer, he still pairs bright orange shirts or flamboyant neckties with the black cowboy boots he wears on Capitol Hill.
“I dress the same way I did before I was elected,” he said. “I’m not going to change anytime soon.”
Molly K. Hooper contributed to this article.