From Corn Dogs to Commander in Chief: How Candidates Regulate Health and Win Votes

It has already been over seven months since the 2016 campaign trail began winding its way through Iowa and New Hampshire, but a long road remains for the candidates. The first primaries are still months ahead, and Election Day is more than a year out.

The campaign trail is a game of attrition—not only in terms of which candidate can sustain their fundraising and polling ratings the longest, but also when it comes to health. It’s a contest of who can endure the late hours, constant travel, and lack of sleep that have become as necessary a part of the path to the presidency as receiving 270 electoral votes.

Candidates from both parties have committed themselves to health-conscious lifestyle changes in the hopes of successfully weathering the road to the White House. When a candidate’s physical appearance can be just as important as policy views, these healthy choices garner not only more energy on the campaign trail, but also more votes. The successful candidate must conquer the paradox of exuding physical wellbeing while participating in campaign activities that are inherently detrimental to health.

“The schedule is fascist,” wrote journalist and essayist David Foster Wallace about his travels on the campaign trail with 2000 Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain. Wallace recounts the weeks of 6 a.m. hotel room wakeup calls, the hours on a tour bus traveling to two or three campaign events a day, and those days ending with an 11 p.m. check-in at yet another hotel. The process starts all over again the next morning.

It may seem as if there is no time in a candidate’s schedule for a healthy diet or for the daily doctor-recommended eight hours of sleep and 30 minutes of exercise.. Yet candidates are taking measures to avoid the Krispy Kreme doughnuts that were ubiquitous on the McCain 2000 campaign bus. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie underwent lap band surgery in 2013 after attack ads in 2009 targeted his weight. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has attributed his impressive weight loss to the Paleo diet, which includes exclusively non-processed, often raw, foods such as nuts, meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. Hillary Clinton has embarked upon a less limiting but still exacting exercise and diet routine that includes practicing yoga and swapping potato chips for beet chips. Fellow Democratic contender, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, likened campaigning to an athletic competition, where the best performance comes from the best nutrition. And before Scott Walker dropped out of the race in late September, his campaign strategy included tracking 10,000 steps a day on his FitBit.

The candidate who refuses to indulge in common, often unhealthy, American pastimes could be seen as haughty or unapproachable.

But are the personal goals of increased energy or overall health really the motivation behind these candidates’ lifestyle changes? Or do the presidential hopefuls anticipate that the American public will draw some parallels between their tough decisions to drink water over soda and their capabilities to deal with the rigors of executive office? Will former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s claim that he is working on making “the right food choices” translate to also making the right choices in policy? Does Jeb Bush’s adherence to the limited foods allowed under the Paleo diet mean that conservative voters can expect an austere budget under a Bush administration?

This last example may be a stretch, but the correlation between physique and election success has most likely crossed the candidates’ minds as they look to highlight their every possible advantage compared to their competitors. Historically, the more physically dominant candidate has had better success in presidential races. Since the general election of 1869, the taller candidate has won 17 times (not counting re-election) while the shorter candidate has won only eight times. Similarly, the heavier candidate has won 18 times, while the lighter opponent has again only won eight times. President Obama’s six foot, one inch victory in 2008 over five foot, seven inch John McCain, and Bill Clinton’s 1992 35-pound, 202-elector lead over George H.W. Bush are some recent examples.

While these results show correlation and not causation, it is not difficult to see how a taller, more impressive figure could appear more dominant, more capable of handling difficult situations, or even more fatherly. However, in a modern-day America that is battling the stigma that more than one third of adults are obese, candidates are now pushing voters to value health over heft.

This shift in physical appeal can be attributed to the Obama administration under which the Affordable Care Act has brought health care to the forefront of the political agenda. The ACA established the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which in part works to limit the spread of Type II Diabetes and heart and cardiovascular disease through education about lifestyle changes. First Lady Michelle Obama’s legacy is similarly concerned with improving America’s health; Her Let’s Move campaign promotes fighting childhood obesity through nutrition and exercise.

The Obama administration has sought to make all Americans more conscious of the political and practical facets of health care. However, in highlighting health on the campaign trail, voters subject candidates to one of the paradoxes of the presidency. Voters want a president who is a common man, but is also an exemplary leader with uncommon intelligence and communication skills: Someone who will take a spot behind the grill at a community barbecue or attempt eating a pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair, yet is also a calorie-conscious fitness fanatic. We hold our leaders to a higher standard in how they dress, what they say, and now, how they regulate their diet and health. The candidate who refuses to indulge in common, often unhealthy, American pastimes could be seen as haughty or unapproachable. How can presidential hopefuls balance the desire to set a good example of health while appealing to the common man, whose vote can be won only after attending day after day of ice cream stands and pancake breakfasts?

Perhaps a candidate cannot arrive at the White House without some deviation from the higher standard. In order for candidates to take a seat in the Oval Office and lead our country away from our reputation for selfish consumerism — especially in the realm of Krispy Kreme doughnuts — there needs to be some wiggle room in the campaign diet. Maybe the campaign trail is like Jeb Bush’s Paleo diet: The only way to survive is to allow for a few cheat days.