There Hasn’t Been a Bearded Major-Party Presidential Nominee in Almost 100 Years. Why?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 18 2012 4:31 PM

Lincoln Had One. So Did Uncle Sam.

Why don’t politicians today grow beards?

(Continued from Page 1)

Sometimes, a beard makes it seem like a politician is either emerging from or embarking on a three-day Smirnoff bender. “A lot of times people associate beards with what happens after you lose a campaign and you let yourself go,” says Jacobs. Indeed, one need only picture a dazed, broken Al Gore circa 2001, puffy and bearded like a white-collar woodsman gone to seed, to understand why politicos identify facial hair with failure and shame. There are other negative connotations, too. "One misperception is that somebody who has a beard is lazy and can't be bothered to shave, sort of on par with somebody who's too lazy to brush his teeth," says Phil Olsen, the founder and self-appointed captain of Beard Team USA, who would know. "Some people perceive beards as disrespectful."

When I asked John Rowley if he could think of a circumstance when he might actually advise a candidate to grow facial hair, he paused for a few seconds. “Maybe when people have a lot of scars on their face from an accident,” he finally answered.

Barring a surge in the number of disfigured men running for office, voters shouldn’t expect the political beard to re-emerge anytime soon. Because the real reason most candidates don't have beards is because most men don't have beards, and there’s nothing to be gained by deviating from the mainstream. “Candidates get criticized mercilessly on what their appearance is, so they go to great lengths to get a political uniform down that isn't too distracting,” says Rowley. Which makes sense: The last thing a candidate wants is for his crazy beard to distract from his sober, rational message about living on the moon.

Advertisement

And yet, though beards might not be all that common, they’re actually well received among the general population. "I do a lot of work with visual communications, facial expressions, how people read faces," says Jeff Jacobs. "Facial hair poses no distraction or causes no aversions whatsoever." Academic research bears this out: In a 1990 paper for the journal Social Behavior and Personality, J. Ann Reed and Elizabeth M. Blunk reported "consistently more positive perceptions of social/physical attractiveness, personality, competency, and composure for men with facial hair." More recently, researchers Barnaby J, Dixson and Paul L. Vasey rejected the notion that "facial hair decreases a male's perceived social status because it is associated with traits such as vagrancy." In fact, participants in their study "rated bearded men as having higher social status than clean-shaven men."

Are there any politicians whose campaigns might have been helped if they had worn beards? “You put John Kerry in the room with a well-groomed beard, and it makes it a lot harder for that flip-flopper charge to stick,” says Jacobs. “He seems like a guy who changes his positions because they evolve, and because he thinks about things.” Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, only to drop out after getting no traction in Iowa and New Hampshire. Soon thereafter, he grew a beard; if he had had one during the primaries, voters might not have been scared off by his hideous double chin. And despite his name, Jon Huntsman struck this year's Republican primary voters as the sort of person who might faint in terror if invited pheasant-shooting. A beard might have lent his campaign a solidity that it so desperately lacked.

Beards won’t take hold in politics, it seems, until a bearded candidate wins a high-profile election. Politicians are unabashed copycats and generally won’t try a new campaign strategy until it’s been proven to work. Howard Dean’s successful use of online organizing in the 2004 presidential primaries paved the way for every digital campaign tactic in use today. Bill Clinton’s smooth jazz stylings in 1992 led directly to the “Saxophone Congress” of 1994.

Though the prospective 2016 presidential candidates are, thus far, a beardless lot, there’s still plenty of time to establish an exploratory committee for someone like Beard Team USA captain Phil Olsen, who is perhaps the best hope for the future of American political beards. “We love America, and we’re growing beards for America,” Olsen says of himself and his teammates. Someone’s got to.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.