With the introduction of Paul Ryan into the 2012 presidential elections, there seems to be even more evidence of a curious trend that has appeared in recent years. Male politicians, particularly those born after 1960, have become the subject of a new type of media interest:
Google searches for “Paul Ryan P90X” spiked more than 5,000 percent since he was introduced as Romney’s running mate on Aug. 11. “Shirtless” was the No. 2 search term associated with “Paul Ryan” in the 12 hours after word broke that Ryan was Romney’s choice. TMZ on Friday posted a picture of Ryan and his wife, Janna, in swimsuits, believed to be from a vacation several years ago. –The Associated Press, 8/17/12
Ryan’s introduction has been of note since although he’s been considered an expert on policy matters, there seems to be more focus on trivial aspects of his personal life. The choice is interesting, because while his “wonkiness” is a potential weapon in the presidential election, it probably won’t ever come into play. In his first week as a vice-presidential candidate, we’ve even seen Ryan make critical mistakes about the budget, his supposed strength.
So why doesn’t it matter? First, vice-presidential candidates don’t help the polls. There’s an initial excitement around the nominee, which we’ve seen in the past week, but then it dies down after two weeks or so. Second, the American public and the average American could care less about intricate policy matters. Especially the budget. Most Americans are completely confused by the budget and have no idea how money gets spent. “Budget” is such an ugly word that most people place blame on all politicians, not just one political party.
So why choose Ryan: the poster child and Republican champion for a fiscally conservative budget? At best, the Romney campaign is hoping to promote divisiveness by promoting Ryan as a budget expert. And so far, the campaign has shown that they are not serious about policy discussions. Instead, both campaigns are resorting to negative campaigning. Choosing Ryan is only marginally about his expertise on the budget, it’s more about his potential widespread appeal.
First, there’s the technical targeted reasons. Ryan theoretically helps Romney win Tea Party loyalists, Wisconsinites, and pro-lifers. But research has shown that appeals based on social group identification do not take precedence over the personal characteristics of the candidates themselves. Issue voting is arguably ranked as an even lower priority. Regardless, the attention on Ryan, his fitness regimen, and his body is evidence that the personal characteristics of the candidate is of crucial importance, especially to unengaged citizens.
Ryan does not set precedence for this. Aaron Schock, the youngest member of Congress, rose to national prominence after the entertainment website TMZ posted a shirtless photo of Schock. Schock has even gone as far to pose on the cover of a national men’s health magazine. Schock defended the media attention, saying:
People who watch TMZ or different mediums don’t expect to see their congressman on such a show. To see their hometown congressman on a show like this kind of raises their interest and gets them a little excited. – Aaron Schock, 4/23/09
And the attention has paid off for Schock. Schock earned a position on the House Ways and Means Committee only in his second term and is one of the Republican Party’s rising stars. Similarly, Scott Brown, governor of Massachusetts underwent similar treatment after it was discovered that he posed nude in Cosmopolitan magazine when he was a 22 year-old law student. The media attention is surprisingly similar to the focus on Ryan:
Nearly three decades later, as he campaigned for the Senate, that article drew widespread notice, as did the fact that Mr. Brown, at 50, seemed as plausible a centerfold as ever. An obsessive exerciser, he competed in more than six triathlons in the first half of 2009 alone. The muscular results of all that swimming and sweating explained an atypical addition to the Washington press corps that shadowed him during a visit to the nation’s capital just after his victory. A reporter for the gossip site TMZ was on hand to ask him if he was ‘bringing sexy back to the Republican Party.’ -New York Times Magazine, 2/27/10
Brown would go onto win that election. Even the President is not immune to cloying for such attention. After winning the presidential election in 2008 and amongst criticism that the new administration was fighting an uphill battle, Obama was snapped on vacation in Hawaii:
Buff-bodied President-elect Barack Obama put his chiseled frame on full display – as seen on Page 1 – during a stroll in Hawaii while on vacation with his family.Looking more like a relaxed beachgoer than the leader-to-be of the free world, Obama walked shirtless amid lush greenery with a water bottle in one hand, his eyes covered by shades, on Sunday. It’s a sight that Americans are increasingly getting used to – an extremely hard-bodied 44th president of the United States, whose toned pecs and abs have become as well documented during the transition process as have his policy positions. –New York Post, 2/23/08
The Internet had a field day with the Obama vacation. Like Ryan, the media focused on the president’s fitness regimen, with many concluding that Obama was fit in the gym and fit to run the nation. Nonetheless, in this instance and with the Ryan photos, there have been unfounded accusations that the photos were staged by the campaigns. The campaigns do understand and value the importance of these types of photos. In fact, they take advantage of it. And to illustrate the importance of these types of photos to the media, a shirtless photo of Ryan is probably valued in the “low five figures”.
As we move forward, I suspect that images like these will become more and more common. Ryan, Schock, Brown, and Obama are all young politicians. Schock was actually born in 1981 and is our youngest national politician. When the Millennials and Generation Z finally get into positions of national power, we’ll see the full ramifications of living your life on the Internet. If these four politicians are an indication, there’s a correct way to handle this publicity. And while I haven’t talked about other not-so-lucky politicans, there’s a definite wrong way to handle this publicity.