Social media's effect on politics

In this age of increased multimedia access, politicians are closer and more accessible to the public in a way no other generation has been.

"Before YouTube and Twitter, before the Internet, just 10 years ago, if a camera wasn't on you, you didn't have to be 'on,' per se," said Neil Oxman, a top political consultant. "It's different now. You have to be 'on' 24/7. You walk into a room, and people record you with their cellphones. There is no more down time" for politicians.

Oxman, cofounder of the Campaign Group Inc., specializes in helping political candidates with TV and radio commercials. He worked on Ed Rendell's mayoral election and, later in his career, helped him to become governor of Pennsylvania.

Oxman also led Mayor Nutter's media team in 2007. He has valuable expertise and wisdom in terms of politicians and their campaign efforts.

Politics has a more visual aspect now. It no longer comes down to just ideology and political views. Politicians are also judged by their appearance and body language.

They are conscious of the perceived notions that viewers conclude from tiny hand movements, shuffling feet, or facial expressions.

Politicians "are coached for big events and debates. Their practices are usually filmed, and then they're shown what they look like. They review things like their presentation, if they sound angry or happy, and their eye contact and hand gestures," Oxman said.

The first time that appearance struck a chord with voters occurred in the first televised debate, in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

Nixon appeared pale and gaunt due to a recent hospitalization. Under the intense studio lights, his sweat was leaving a ring around his collar. Meanwhile, his opponent appeared young and confident. "Nixon had a five o'clock shadow, while Kennedy was tanned from a recent trip to Florida," Oxman said.

The effect of the contrasting appearances was noted the next day: Voters who had tuned in on the radio said Nixon had won, while television viewers insisted Kennedy was the clear winner.

"Looks do matter. People make judgments," Oxman said. "Appearances in campaigns can be positive, neutral, or negative."

During his presidency, Bill Clinton, the first of the baby-boomer generation to become president, dyed his hair gray to appear more distinguished.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis chose Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate. On stage together, Dukakis, who was 5 inches shorter, looked up to Bentsen - an image that went against American's association between height and power.

Appearance is not the only factor in a candidate's likability.

"The personality of the candidate also matters to voters," said Oxman, who cited the 2000 debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore. "Gore was really weird. Over the course of the three debates, he was three different characters," Oxman said, "and it had an impact on the viewers."

During the first debate, Gore was aggressive and had a "bully" personality. At one point, he approached Bush in an attempt to intimidate him and could be heard sighing into his microphone during Bush's answers. Judith S. Trent and Robert V. Friedenberg, in their book Political Campaign Communication, asserted that viewers perceived Gore as arrogant and disrespectful.

"It's hard for voters to vote for someone they don't like personally," Oxman said.

"People want to connect with their politicians, just as much as politicians want to be liked by people."

In the 1992 presidential debate, Clinton rose from his chair and walked closer to the audience. He spoke directly to the member of the audience asking the question and memorably stated, "I feel your pain." In the same debate, his opponent, George H.W. Bush, was caught on camera looking at his watch.

The contrast was startling.

A candidate's likability can be even more important during primaries, according to Alexis Simendinger, the White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics.

"Primaries, more than in general elections, are when voters sort through candidates who are often more alike than different when it comes to issues and experience," she wrote in an article on RealClearPolitics. "Candidates' personal traits and voters' evaluations of what they see and hear can matter more in this stage than primary contenders' positions on issues."

In the 2012 GOP presidential primaries, Oxman said, "many people don't like Newt Gingrich, so they don't want to vote for him even if they like his views." Similarly, in a Daily Beast poll, the first word that popped into voters' heads to describe Mitt Romney was rich.

However, in the recent Florida debate, Romney dominated normally powerful Gingrich. "Mitt Romney had a new debate trainer," Oxman said. "He beat Gingrich and was able to put him on the defensive."

Romney has been attempting to transform voters' perception of him. He has been seen wearing jeans and singing "America the Beautiful" to a crowd of senior citizens.

Likability is integral to every politician. "Whether a candidate dresses weirdly or answers weirdly," Oxman said, "viewers are aware of these things on a certain subliminal level."