Is being overweight a political handicap? That's the big question posed by Daniel Engber in a very interesting piece this week at Slate.com. At issue, the contentious Corzine-Christie race in New Jersey and a weighty issue that has developed between the two men. Namely, the issue of weight.
You see, Corzine (D), the incumbent governor, is an average-to-fit 62. He considers himself a “health nut”. He runs marathons. For a man who was very nearly killed in a car accident two years ago, he is in excellent health.
His opponent, Chris Christie (R), is an obese 47-year old. He considers himself “a Jersey guy, with a Jersey gut”. He jokes about his weight. He says that he has been heavy since his teenage years, and has tried to lose the weight several times, to no avail.
The controversy all started with this ad:
The ad doesn't explicitly mention weight at all. The gist of the ad, rather, is that Christie used his power as U.S. Attorney to get out of some nasty driving tickets. However, instead of the phrase “used his power”, the ad says “threw his weight around”. In classic attack ad fashion, the ad closes on an unnatural slow-motion image of the opponent–only this time, he's getting out of a car–and well, jiggling.
As you can see, the message is pretty clear. Christie claims this is “character assassination”. Corzine claims that he “…doesn't give a hoot about Mr. Christie's weight.”
Still, the real issue is, is it working? The answer is, very likely yes. As Engber points out, two separate polls by Public Policy Polling (.pdf) and the New York Times both confirm–independent voters are significantly less likely to vote for an overweight candidate.
And, as Engber tells us, that bias might just be reflected already in the nation's governors. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com recently looked at the shape of the nation's governors and found that (in his non-medical, decidedly tongue-in-cheek estimation) only 10 (or 20%) current governors are visibly overweight. (He includes Gov. Culver, who he calls “squarish”, based on this photo.)
Engbert accounts for this disparity (remember that more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight) with the following analysis:
…there's no constituency for a fat politician. Conservatives see excess weight as a sign of moral failing or a breach of personal responsibility. Liberals sneer at the bloated American lifestyle, even while imagining the war on obesity as a fight for social justice.