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Presidential contenders: Incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. (KEVIN LAMARQUE / BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
Presidential contenders: Incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. (KEVIN LAMARQUE / BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

John Doyle

Clothes may make the man in the U.S. presidential debate Add to ...

The other night on the CTV News Channel, an image consultant was being interviewed about the images projected by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney through their personal attire. The idea was to examine how the candidates can express themselves and are then interpreted by U.S. voters, based on their choice of necktie, suit and other areas of personal style.

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The interview was part of the build-up to Wednesday’s first presidential debate (multiple U.S. channels, 9 p.m.) and it was a fascinating few minutes. The consultant, Leah Morrigan, was talking about neckties and how Obama’s wide range of colours suggests a man of openness and someone willing to change. She also mentioned his suits, noting their modernity, and suggested that this tells voters that he is a man of now, the contemporary. She said Romney’s suits projected rigidity. When she began talking about his high-waisted pants and what that meant, the segment was closed down.

Maybe anchor Scott Laurie was running out of time. Maybe, and this is the sense I got, he felt that this was nonsensical and unworthy of serious attention in the context of the U.S. presidential debates. Isn’t it odd how people who work in TV, the most image-conscious of media, are often uneasy discussing how the seemingly superficial has importance? The image consultant was on the money about clothes and style and how quickly we interpret authority figures based on their appearance, voice and mannerisms. Four words here: Stephen Harper’s blue sweater.

Over in other parts of this newspaper where they talk abut polls and policy, stuff about suits and neckties in this debate will be ignored. Fair enough. But we are taking TV here and Wednesday night’s debate is a TV event. Herewith some TV talking points about image and personal presentation saying substantial things.

Romney’s ha ha ha. As Dana Milbank of The Washington Post noted on MSNBC this year, Romney has this weird habit of going, “Ha Ha Ha,” in response to questions he does not want to answer. Milbank pointed out how irritating it is to hear Romney’s voice descend into a long “haaaah” when he realizes that nobody else is laughing.

Romney the robot. Google “Robotic Romney” and you will find that a portion of the U.S. media coverage posits the idea that Romney is, in fact, a latest-generation robot. Fox News does not hold with this theory, of course. On Wednesday night, look for signs of Romney appearing to do an impression of Hal from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It could be that he is not actually doing an impression. It’s just him.

Romney’s hair. Mostly it looks as though it was made for a robot. Lately, his hair has been a little longer – not asunder, but a bit more liberated. This is to make him approachable. His tough choice on Wednesday night: approachable or CEO-like tight, short hair?

Obama’s hand-in-pocket. Obama signals ease with himself and confidence by sometimes talking with a hand in his pocket, like a guy unrushed, happy to chat with you. On Wednesday night, a hand-in-pocket moment would suggest that he thinks Romney the robot is, you know, not be taken seriously. He can breezily contradict him.

The necktie war. Obama’s wide range of necktie colours is no accident. Soft colours appeal to the TV cameras and do, in fact, signal broad-mindedness. Romney has real trouble in the tie department. Usually, if it’s tie time, it’s solid blue or red, standard CEO power ties. When he introduced Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney wore a white shirt, blue tie and no jacket. Ryan had a jacket, white shirt and no tie. They looked weird together. (Political pundit James Carville instigated a long and hilarious Twitter discussion about the tie, no-tie duo. Just in case you think nobody else pays attention to this stuff.) Before anyone says a word on Wednesday night, Romney’s tie choice will speak volumes.

Tone of voice and the “help” squeal. Obama is not always smooth without a Teleprompter or index cards. But his voice retains an unruffled calmness. In debates, Romney can be thrown off by an unexpected question or sharp tone from an opponent. He has a habit of appealing to the moderator in these circumstances. “Anderson, Anderson!” he almost squealed at Anderson Cooper of CNN during a withering attack in a Republican candidates debate. One call for “Jim!” on Wednesday night, as Jim Lehrer of PBS moderates, and he is sunk. This is particularly important, people. As a New Yorker profile underlined recently, Romney’s narrative is about his being a “rescuer,” someone who can solve big problems. If he needs to be rescued by the moderator, that speaks louder than his robotic movements in his boxy suit.

This is not nonsense. Clothes, grooming, voice and poise matter. You dress for a job interview, you exteriorize the brand that is you, your experience and ideas. Television isolates and highlights everything about a person’s demeanour. Sure, “it’s the economy, stupid,” but would you let a fashion victim fix it? That would be stupid.

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