Obama, Romney and image building

Using the theory of person perception and building on the work of previous scholarship, a just published research study of mine examines newspaper photographs of Obama and Romney in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. The theory of person perception considers photographs of people in regard to behavior, context, and perspective and the associated effects of visual presentation.

My research analyzed front-page photographs of the two candidates from the top 25 highest daily circulation newspapers from August to November 2012. In addition, because of the critical role swing states took in the 2012 election, the research also analyzed front-page photographs from all available newspapers from the nine swing states.

It is critical that research on communication and media in the political process not ignore the powerful role of photographs in providing information and provoking emotion. As Schill concludes, “Images clearly play a foundational role in the political communication process.”

Recalling the 2012 U. S. presidential election, Barack Obama, the incumbent Democratic president, defeated Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee and former governor of Massachusetts, by an electoral vote of 332 to 206 (270 electoral votes are needed to win). Obama carried 26 states plus the District of Columbia, while Romney carried 24 states.

My research study analyzed 2,530 photos: 1,308 (51.7%) photos of Obama and 1,222 (48.3%) photos of Romney. Findings indicate that Obama was more frequently pictured shaking hands or waving (more favorable behavior), while Romney was more often seen with his arms folded or hanging at his sides (less favorable behavior). However, Romney’s facial behavior appeared more confident or cheerful than Obama, while Obama’s facial behavior was more unhappy or worried. But, as a whole, there was no significant difference between the candidates in the photographic presentation for the behavior category.

With the exception of background, the context of the Obama photos was more positive: he was more often pictured speaking or shaking hands with the presence of a cheering crowd or attentive colleagues. In addition, he more often appeared in professional dress. However, none of the individual differences between the attribute means of the two candidates were significant. It is not necessarily surprising that as the incumbent president, Obama had more natural opportunities for public speaking as well as greater attention from engaged audiences and colleagues, thus leading to an overall move favorable context score than Romney.

One of the more interesting findings from my data related to candidate dress. Obama was more often pictured in a suit and tie, while Romney was more often in casual dress. Romney’s “less favorable” attire was a result of strategic campaigning by Romney and his advisors.


“Do Mitt Romney’s Gap Jeans Make You Forget About His Rich-Person 15 Percent Tax Rate?” Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

One of the Romney campaign goals was to re-define his “reputation as a 1950s square.”  Attempting to break this image and to forge a stronger connection with voters, Romney was often seen without a tie or with his shirtsleeves rolled up. The noteworthy stories and photos of Romney in Gap brand “skinny jeans” were also part of this strategic plan to re-make his image.  Wittily put by Esquire magazine, Romney’s campaign strategy was to “stop dressing well.”

Yet, this is not a unique strategy. German’s research on the 2000 Bush/Gore election found that in an effort to break his “stiff and cold” image, Gore was often pictured in more casual dress; conversely, Bush was more often pictured in a suit and tie to “compensate for his perceived lack of political experience.”  Unique or not, the goal is the same: shape the image of the candidate to form a favorable impression in the mind of the voting public.

While there were significant differences between the photographic presentations of Obama and Romney in the leading newspapers as well as in the newspapers from the critical swing states, as an aggregate, the visuals were generally balanced and differences would likely go unnoticed by audiences. All indications from the data in my study are that print newspapers provided balanced visual coverage.

My research continued the well-established research tradition of looking at print news photographs in regard to person perception in presidential campaigns My longitudinal data findings continue a systematic approach to media scholarship. And the findings are significant; there were differences in the visual presentation of the two candidates. However, taken as a whole, the newspapers analyzed in this study generally succeeded in providing balanced visual coverage of Obama and Romney. This is a positive finding. However, subsequent work in this area must consider new media and social media–candidate controlled media–in presidential campaigns. It is highly likely that voters who only visited these information sources would leave with a much more positively-skewed visual impression of the candidates.

Body image credit: http://nymag.com/thecut/2012/01/mitt-romney-wears-gap-jeans.html

Header image credit: http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2012/10/04/presidential-debate-romney-goes-on-offense-against-obama/

One response to “Obama, Romney and image building

  1. Pingback: Visually reporting Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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