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Chris Christie Too Fat To Be President?

As the political media continues to push ahead with speculation about Chris Christie’s Presidential intention, ABC News wonders if the New Jersey Governor’s weight would keep him out of the office:

For Chris Christie, there was no way around it. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m slightly overweight,” he said during a debate in his successful campaign for governor.

Two years later, Christie is the man of the moment in presidential politics, with many powerful Republicans clamoring for him to run. But it has been 100 years since Americans sent a true heavyweight to the White House, when William Howard Taft tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds.

Nor is Christie just “slightly overweight.” So there is no delicate way to ask this: Is Chris Christie too fat to win?

Politics, after all, is a business of image and first-impressions — and study after study shows that people judge the hefty more harshly than they judge those who are thin.

“Overweight people have much less of a chance of getting a job, they have much less of a chance of keeping a job … they are paid less than those who are thin,” said David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York.

“In this era of exercise, we impute moral failings to people who don’t rein in their weight,” he said. “Those prejudices are just intensified for people who seek elected office.”

Indeed, John McLaughlin, a New York-based Republican political consultant, said he routinely advises his clients to watch what they eat.

“You don’t want them to gain weight, to look poorly on television,” he said.

(…)

Political scientists and strategists said they could not recall a truly heavy American politician finding great national success in the television age.

“Our candidates tend to be tall, they tend to have great hair,” said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Center of Public Affairs. “This doesn’t seem to be a business that, at the presidential level, willingly accepts people who are demonstrably overweight.

Well, at least not since the days of William Howard Taft, who was so legendarily large that he once got stuck in the White House bathtub and ordered it be replaced with one that was big enough for four average sized men. Of course, Taft was also the last President with facial hair, and we haven’t had a major party Presidential candidate with facial hair since the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey in 1948. And, starting in 1960, we have seen television and the moving image influence political elections in fundamental ways.

Put simply, a candidate who does not look good on television, or who doesn’t know how to use the medium, is going to be at a distinct disadvantage when going up against someone who does. The classic example of this is the legendary, and perhaps apocryphal tale of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. According to the accepted history, people who watched the debate on television believed Kennedy won, while those who listened on radio believed Nixon had won. The actual history of the debates is somewhat more complicated. Nixon had been ill before that first debate and choose to utilize a form of makeup that made his face seem even more pallor than usual over the television sets of the time. He had also injured his knee the weekend before and was apparently in pain due to standing for so long. Also, there were actually four Nixon-Kennedy debates and it’s generally accepted that Nixon’s performances were much stronger in the final three debates than in that first one. The problem for Nixon is that far more people watched the first debate than the final three, so it’s probable that a lot of people didn’t get to see those debates. Despite this twist on the legend, though, the lesson that the Nixon-Kennedy debates set in many peoples minds was that television was “dumbing down” politics, and that we had entered an era where appearance and image would matter more than substance.

It’s been generally true that television has irreversibly changed the political process, and the manner in which we pick Presidents. One need only look at the campaigns and Presidencies of our two most media savvy Presidents to see that effect. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used television, and their ability to use it to their advantage, to advance their agendas on numerous occasions. Reagan made many Oval Office or East Room addresses designed to push a piece of legislation through a House of Representatives controlled by the opposition party, for example. Bill Clinton arguably both resurrected and relaunched his 1992 campaign thanks to appearances on 60 Minutes where he addressed the Gennifer Flowers allegations, and The Arsenio Hall Show. In both cases, image mattered significantly to their ability to connect with the public.

So what does this say about Christie? Are we forever in an era where only tall, thin, people with good hair will be elected President, or is the door still open for the next William Howard Taft? Some argue that Christie’s weight might actually be an advantage in the current political climate:

At a time when many Americans are angry with Washington and fed up with politicians, Christie’s weight allows him to stand apart from the political crowd, they said. It is an image Christie played to when he warned New Jerseyans to “get the hell off the beach” as Hurricane Irene approached in late August.

“People want something different, something out of the ordinary … someone who is willing to stand up and confront problems,” McLaughlin said “Being a picture-perfect candidate I don’t think is as important anymore.”

Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, said Christie’s weight could help him subliminally with voters, too.

“Maybe this is a time when you need someone to be a bull in a china shop,” Muzzio said. “Well, bulls are big.”

Maybe, or maybe in a nation where obesity is seemingly a national pastime, how someone looks on television isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. MBunge says:

    The biggest disadvantage Christie’s weight poses is physical, not image-related. Campaigning for President isn’t like running a marathon, but it’s very demanding and prone to unhealthy eating, sleeping and exercise routines. Just think about how many times a candidate climbs up a short flight of steps to get on stage and give a speech. I sure wouldn’t want to be Christie’s knees after a few months of doing that over and over and over.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. @MBunge:

    Fair point. Indeed, I recall many jokes during the 1992 campaign about Bill Clinton’s bad eating habits on the campaign trial. And, though I didn’t note this in the post, it’s fair to note that Bill Clinton was not exactly svelte during the majority of his Presidency.

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  3. Hey Norm says:

    MBunge is right abou the physical demands.
    Also – It’s not how you look, it’s how you feel.
    Christies weight is going to raise a ton of health issues (pun intended). No matter his condition, it’s going to be a huge distraction. Especially running against a guy who is in pretty amazing shape.
    Before I vote for Christie I’m going to pay very close attention to the VP choice…a heartbeat away means a lot more when the President might be hypertensive, or is maybe pre-diabtic. We know the guy suffers from asthma.

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  4. Ben Wolf says:

    Christie’s look isn’t what matters to me; it’s his clear weakness as a man in allowing himself to fall into that shape. I can’t respect that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  5. PJ says:

    @Doug:

    Maybe, or maybe in a nation where obesity is seemingly a national pastime, how someone looks on television isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.

    I would seriously disagree.
    How many overweight or obese actors are there on TV shows?
    How many overweight or obese news anchors are there?

    Also, how many overweight or obese politicians are there?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  6. NickNot says:

    I don’t care that he’s fat. To me the problem is he just doesn’t look enough like Gary Johnson or Ron Paul.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  7. HelloWorld! says:

    It’s not that he isn’t a GQ model, it’s that he appears to be a gluttonous hypocrite. He rides around in helicopters on NJ tax dollars to go to baseball games and restaurants, he stays at hotels that are way over what the NJ budget allows, and he really is a rude guy when giving speeches. All this type of stuff, with his weight, make him look like a gluttonous slob.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  8. Eric Florack says:

    One word…. Nadler. OH, WAIT… He’s a liberal Democrat, isn’t he? Ah, maybe we’re onto something. Let’s go one step further….

    Would we consider such points if we were talking about a Liberal Female? ( I specify liberal female because the question of looks has seemingly been broached several times by the left where Pain and Bachman are concerned…)

    The issue appears to be the the political leanings of the target under discussion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  9. ImpeachOBAMA says:

    Stamina would be a concern. But, I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about it. He’s not going to be a candidate. How many times does he have to say it? He’s not getting in the race. Let it go.

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  10. Hey Norm says:

    It now looks like Christie has eaten all the flattery and, on a hypoglycemic high, will enter the race.
    Here we go……..

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  11. Hey Norm says:

    Really??
    You identify yourself with Impeaching Obama?
    Really?
    Pray-tell why we must impeach the President?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  12. An Interested Party says:

    One word…. Nadler. OH, WAIT… He’s a liberal Democrat, isn’t he? Ah, maybe we’re onto something.

    Two more words…false equivalence…when Nadler runs for president, do let the rest of us know…

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  13. jan says:

    @Hey Norm:

    I actually agree with everything you said here, Norm. Christie’s weight is more of a health issue shadowing him, especially in lieu of his asthma. And, yes, his VP selection will be more important than most, as people will definitely be looking at this person as a possible fill-in president should Christie suffer any medical set-backs.

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  14. jan says:

    I don’t think his heavy ‘look’ is necessarily a deterrant, because, like Doug pointed out, obesity is common in this country, and possibly people of bulk will identify with him. And, there are a number of obese actors in TV sitcoms these days as well.

    However, on the other hand, with Obama being extra lean and fit, doing hoops and running up and down the stairs of Airforce 1, it’s not going to be a flattering contrast for Christie either, to be physically pitted against such an attractive opponent. I remember seeing a recent picture of them together, and it was striking — like a weight-watchers before and after photo shoot walking together.

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  15. eric florack says:

    AIP: While I find your response a little orly dismissi hae a fair point…’ the waddler’ as he is often called isn’t running for POTUS. Still though, if being overwight is a political negatie, how is it he seems unaffected? And, where then is the bordrline where that negative starts taking it’s political toll?

    Oh… And lets not forget that bachman’s looks were on a target of the Kos kiddies long before she decided to run, hmm?

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  16. An Interested Party says:

    Oh… And lets not forget that bachman’s looks were on a target of the Kos kiddies long before she decided to run, hmm?

    Oh please…as if such things aren’t a universal sport? I guess people on the right have never gone after Hillary Clinton by trashing her for her looks? Oh, and let us also not forget how Rush Limbaugh and John McCain referred to Chelsea Clinton when her father was president…

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  17. eric florack says:

    A universal sport, say you?
    I suspec t the feminists might 9e something to say to the point.

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  18. Ztrain says:

    ‘Slightly overweight’ = morbidly obese. We are talking over 40 BMI or in layman’s terms ‘walking heart attack’.

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  19. ekxs says:

    Fat guys have short pricks.

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