Conservative columnist and gadfly Ann Coulter raised the issue of the height of U.S. political candidates when she suggested that prominent Republicans like Kentucky senator Rand Paul and Florida senator Marco Rubio might be too short to ever be elected President.
“Rubio and Rand Paul are as tall as my iPod.” Coulter told Fox News Sean Hannity last month. “You can’t run a short candidate.”
Rubio, who is listed at about 5-foot-9, and Paul, who checks in at 5-foot-8, are nonetheless considered high profile future GOP presidential possibilities, if not in 2016, then in 2020.
But if American history serves as any kind of guide, Paul and Rubio face a huge obstacle in ever reaching the White House – and it has to do with their height, or lack thereof.
Indeed, in the United States, at least among the highest levels of politics, being short appears to be a distinct disadvantage – from long before the age of television.
According to a book published in 1982 by a psychologist named John Gillis called “Too Small, Too Tall,” the taller candidate has won 80 percent of the elections in the 20th century.
Of course, there have been a few exceptions.
Reportedly, during the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter (5-foot-9) and the incumbent Gerald Ford (6-foot-1), Carter’s aides stopped at nothing to prevent their man from being photographed next to his opponent. (Carter won the election).
In recent elections since 1984, the favoritism toward height is not quite so pronounced.
In the nine presidential elections since 1976, the taller candidate has won five times, the shorter won four times. (In the 1992 election between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, both men were exactly 6-foot-2).
In the 1988 election between Bush and Michael Dukakis, the height difference was a staggering six inches (Bush easily won).
However, Bush’s son, George W. Bush (6-foot-0), won twice against taller challengers, Al Gore (6-foot-2) and John Kerry (6-foot-4).
Kerry, in fact, was four and one-half inches taller than his opponent (and still lost).
Barack Obama (6-foot-1) was much taller than the man he defeated in 2008, John McCain (5-foot-9).
Obama then reversed historical trends by beating Republican challenger, Mitt Romney (6-foot-2), in 2012.
American voters seem to place a greater emphasis on a politician’s height – much more so than continental Europeans, were short men like Nicolas Sarkozy (5-foot-6), Silvio Berlusconi (5-foot-5), Francois Hollande (5-foot-7),Vladimir Putin (5-foot-6) and Dmitri Medvedev (5-foot-4) have had no trouble reaching the pinnacle of political power.
Nic Fleming wrote in the Guardian newspaper: “Voters see tall politicians as better suited for leadership, according to a survey of how people visualize their leaders. Psychologists believe the bias may stem from an evolved preference for physically imposing chiefs who could dominate enemies.”
Perhaps in the U.S. tallness is associated with the 19th century pioneer and cowboy spirit which was based upon physical strength and domination as well as independent self-reliance.
The situation for females heads of state is an entirely different kettle of fish – women are, on average, shorter than men and they are still battling men for equality in the sphere of politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (perhaps the most powerful woman on earth) is 5-foot-5, about average for the fairer sex; while Australia’s Julia Gillard and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner are roughly the same height.
Women political chiefs, especially in the western world, likely do not have to worry about how tall they are – although they must contend with prejudices about beauty and age, more so than their male counterparts.
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