Skin Deep

How much of any campaign is settled at first sight?

There is a certain post-structuralist vibration to this modern political climate of spin wars and smear campaigns; operatives on both sides of the aisle seem to share—have been forced to share—the belief that ‘truth’ is an abstraction, and that discourse, true or false, governs all. Yet, for all the Foucauldian interventions of the candidates’ various éminences grises, there remains a definite dimension of political campaigns that remains out of any advisor’s control—not because it is lofty and glacial, like the collective cultural sentiment across Texas or Ohio, but because it is written onto the candidates’ faces themselves, as superficial and meaningless as a silicone bracelet.

Take, for example, Friday’s debate. Much parsing has trailed after the event: as the media prognosticates the exchange’s potential effects, Sen. John McCain has shown his post-Machiavellian stripes by naming any ‘tie’ declared an effective win for his camp. Meanwhile, a USA Today/Gallup poll declared Saturday that 46 percent of viewers thought Obama had won, while only 34 percent had sided with the Republican—there goes McCain’s audacious proclamation.

This may spring from political bias, but I tend to think McCain did far worse than he could even imagine, all before opening his mouth. I watched the debate distractedly and intermittently (as, I imagine, many American voters did), and thus my conclusion about the affair could only be an aesthetic one: that Barack Obama looks ready to lead, no matter what his opponent’s ads might say, and that John McCain looks like a tired old crank.

It might be tempting to label this low level of analysis as a debasement of the ongoing political dialogue in this country, for its ignorance of practical policy standpoints and cultural dynamics. However, there is a growing body of research that suggests much of voting preference is, like amour fou, deaf, dumb and hopelessly impulsive.

Of particular interest is a 2005 psychology paper published in Science by Alexander Todorov of Princeton and his colleagues, which concludes that “rapid, unreflective trait inferences can contribute to voting choices,” rather than deliberative reasoning. In trials the researchers vindicated their hypothesis: Almost 72 percent of Senate race outcomes were successfully predicted simply by showing a sample of the electorate pictures of the candidates for whom they could vote for milliseconds at a time, and asking them to make snap judgments on those candidates’ competence.

At first this seems like spiriting news for the Democrats, who—it may seem cruel to say—have picked the far more winsome White House aspirant in 2008. There were moments on Friday night when, as a pasty and weary Sen. McCain ground out a response to one of Jim Lehrer’s probing questions, that Obama seemed to be filming a future episode of The West Wing in the background: smiling genuinely and looking with a true statesman’s curiosity at his rival. You half-expected the Democrat to start juggling chairs or audience members while the dollop of cottage cheese from Sedona stumbled through “Ahmadinejad.”

But it’s not so simple as that, says Todorov. The findings in Science suggest that attractiveness, likeability, and the appearance of trustworthiness play a negligible role in the instantaneous decisions we make about our future leaders. In the end, they suggest, the countenance of competence is all that matters. The hypothesis is heartening—that, even subconsciously, our eyes return to a genuine, if superficial, appraisal of ‘readiness’—but could certainly tip the ‘shallow campaign’ back towards white-haired Sen. McCain and his ‘hot’ campaign mate.

Of course, Obama has another, equally arbitrary and more dismaying variable about which to worry: the so-called Bradley effect. The thinking is that white voters might consciously or unconsciously conceal latent racial biases from pollsters, but be swayed by those biases in the booth. These days I’d like to think Obama is Kennedy to McCain’s Nixon, the handsome and clever candidate of the future. But there’s no guarantee he won’t be Jesse Jackson to McCain’s Michael Dukakis.

This isn’t a condemnation of American voters; I imagine these rules have governed electoral politics since democracy was first devised millennia ago. Indeed, I’d guess that this present electorate is as well informed about the lives and leanings of their candidates as any ever before. But as we forge ahead, worrying about global war and the ‘second Holocaust’ indelicately conjured by Sen. McCain, we should keep in mind that much of our decision-making process is far less grandiose than it may seem, that instead rests upon a blink and a synapse fired.

James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.