Candidate beardedness relevance

This week I spotted a report on some research recently published in the Journal of Marketing Communications that purportedly claims that men with beards are more trustworthy than the clean-shaven when endorsing some categories of products or services. The report proceeds to wonder aloud whether politicians like Al Gore and Bill Richardson should have grown beards before their presidential bids rather than after. All this got me thinking, what is the state of public opinion on facial hair?

I started with the Gore proposition and immediately found that data refutes the hypothesis. In 2002, after Al Gore has grown his loser’s beard, Gallup asked a national sample of Americans whether he looked better with or without a beard. It wasn’t even close. Only 15 percent said he looked better bearded, while 62 percent chose clean-shaven. That’s the only straight-up poll I could find regarding a politician. I did find an online survey that damned

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David Beckham’s short-lived beard. It was panned by soccer fans, with 83 percent saying they “hate it.”

Of course, “the only poll that counts” is taken on Election Day. Even there, the news is bad. Conventional wisdom holds that Jon Corzine, once the only bearded U.S. senator and later the only bearded governor, lost reelection to an overweight Republican because Corzine had a beard. At least that’s what the tabloids speculate. An Oklahoma political consultant gets precise, telling clients there is a four-percentage-point penalty for beards and a six-point hit for mustaches. I have no idea where these numbers come from, but they are interesting. Christie beat Corzine by four points. Was the beard decisive, or were the tabloids just pandering to base instincts?

I started trolling websites and discussion groups to try and get a qualitative-research take on candidate beardedness, conducting a sort of focus group on the Web. The best comment I read, made by a man who has been bearded much of his life, and who often carefully observes others’ reactions to his beard, concludes sagely that “Beards are visually and socially ‘loaded’ in both a positive and negative way.” He tells two stories that illuminate the dichotomy. Once in an art gallery, the owner suddenly rushed out on an emergency errand, asking him to watch the shop until she returned. He protested that she didn’t really know him. She responded, “You have a beard; you have to be nice.” He watched the shop for an hour, answering the phone. But then he tells of stopping to aid a stranded motorist changing a tire, only to be told “go away.”

There is a litany of negative associations with beards. I counted them: radical, hippie, rebel, dirty, hiding something, old, dour, grouchy, menacing, scratchy kisser, poor, homeless, scruffy, Taliban and grungy. But these are offset by positives: manly, rugged, noble, bold, distinguished, persistent, powerful, masculine, wise and natural. Then there were some hard-to-categorize associations, most focusing on independence and maverick tendencies, like indifference to the status quo, emancipated, anti-establishment, non-conformist and just different. Arty and frugal also came up, but I’m not sure where to put those associations, either.

A current headcount of beards by party suggests that more Republican candidates should embrace the positives of beardedness. It’s part of our heritage.

Counting the 1800s and politics at the presidential level, historians say the GOP has been the hairiest party. But today less than a handful of Republicans in top office sport facial hair. With a beard, Florida governor and U.S. senate candidate Charlie Crist could pass for that “most interesting man in the world” who hawks Dos Equis beer. If Crist becomes an Independent, the maverick association would help.

As for the published marketing research, I later found out it sampled Italians only, so never mind.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.