Polls have shown surprisingly that when it comes to male candidates, voters look more favorably on overweight aspirants
Sometimes, Washington DC seems like Hollywood for nerds. No clearer was that the case than the media’s reaction to the news that New Jersey governor Chris Christie submitted himself to lapband weight-loss surgery. Never mind that Christie said he was simply losing weight to be healthy for the sake of his family. The first question the press, as they would in Hollywood, asked is how being slimmer would impact Christie’s future career. So do Christie’s chance of becoming president improve because he is carrying fewer pounds?
Some of us may be too young to remember that the press wondered if Christie was “too fat” to be governor from New Jersey. In fact, it was the subject of a Newsweek article and Democrat Jon Corzine’s attacks in 2009. Back then, 78% of voters said that Christie’s weight made no difference in their vote. You might think that the voters were lying until you realize that Christie became arguably the most conservative Republican governor from New Jersey in modern history. He did so while winning a larger percentage of the vote than any Republican candidate for governor in New Jersey in 24 years.
Recent polling backs up the older polling. A Quinnipiac poll taken in March 2013 of New Jersey voters found that only 21% of voters had any reservations about a generic candidate’s weight. A September 2012 Quinnpiac poll showed that 84% of New Jersey voters said it wouldn’t make a difference in their vote if a generic candidate was overweight. In New York, the percentage rose to 88%, so it’s not just a home state bias. Even after an asthma attack in 2011, only 18% of New Jersey voters said they were worried about Christie’s weight. Keep in mind that all of this New Jersey polling took place when Christie had a far lower approval rating than he sports now.
There are also signs that attacks on Christie’s weight backfire. I’m not just talking about the fact that Jon Corzine lost in 2009. I’m talking about an October 2011 Quinnipiac poll that showed that 71% of New Jersey voters said that jokes about Christie’s weight were in bad taste. This polling was consistent across political parties. Moreover, 79% of women, who Republicans have a problem with, thought that the jokes were in bad taste. Most were voters willing to go farther than just “bad taste”: 72% agreed with Christie that political commentators who brought up his weight were “ignorant”.
Some might say that the weight issue would be different in other states. I don’t buy it. New Jersey and New York are two of the slimmest states in the nation with obesity rates of less than 25%. If weight were an issue, we’d expect to be in these states. I would think it would be far less of an issue in the battleground states of the midwest given that 25% to, in some cases, over 30% of the population is overweight in these states. In a Republican primary, Christie’s weight shouldn’t deter him from winning southern states given that the majority have obesity rates over 30%.
Indeed, some of the livelier southern politicians of our day were at least at some point overweight while in office. Anyone remember Bill Clinton’s weight problem? His McDonald’s excursions didn’t stop him from becoming president. Haley Barbour was a well-liked two-term Republican governor of Mississippi. Mike Huckabee did slim down for health reasons before his presidential run, yet was popular as an overweight governor. Newt Gingrich’s health would likely benefit from losing a few pounds, but I think most would agree he didn’t lose in 2012 because of weight.
Examples and polling aside, you might think that these politicians’ weight did hurt them. That is, they would have been even more popular if they were slimmer. Given the polling, you’d have to believe the voters were unwilling to admit that weight kept them from pulling the lever for these overweight candidates.
The good news is that we actually have scientific research that seeks to control for this potential social desirability bias. A 2010 University of Missouri-Kansas City study looked at how people reacted to pictures of a potential candidate of normal weight. This control group was compared to other respondents who were shown pictures of the same candidate, except the candidate’s picture was morphed to be obese. Everything else about the candidate including political affiliation, views, and background remained the same.
And did the candidate’s weight make a difference? If the candidate was female, extra weight was a small negative. That concurs with a survey this year by Lake Research that found the mere mention of a woman candidate’s physical appearance hurt them. This was especially the case when the appearance coverage was unflattering.
For men, however, the 2010 University of Missouri study found that being obese was not a negative. It was actually a large positive! Respondents were over 20 points more likely to have a warmer feeling towards the same male candidate if he were obese than if were skinny. The obese candidate was 10% better liked than if he were skinny. The obese candidate was also thought to be more intelligent than the skinny one.
These positives for males make sense if you think about it. Society trains us to think this way. To bring it back to Hollywood, look at the Nutty Professor with Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s character Professor Klump was obese. He was, however, smart as a whip and very likable. Klump’s skinny equivalent Buddy Love was not nearly as smart and was a jerk. At the end of both Nutty Professor 1 and 2, the audience is rooting for Klump to beat his arch nemesis, and he does. Meanwhile, Klump doesn’t get together with an overweight woman. Instead, he ends up with characters played by the very attractive Jada Pinkett Smith in the first movie and Janet Jackson in the second one. These characters happen to be very kind and intelligent too.
When you take all the evidence into account, Chris Christie doesn’t need to lose weight to become president. Voters say they don’t care about weight, and their actions back them up. The research says that Christie’s electoral prospects might be better off keeping on the pounds. For now, can’t we just be happy that Christie wants to be a healthier individual?