Mustaches put off voters
DES MOINES, IOWA | Without his mustache, Gov. Terry Branstad would be reduced to stubble.
So goes one of the tongue-in-cheek theories about Mr. Branstad’s decades-old cookie duster, which the Republican will wear into the November election as he seeks another term in office and a piece of political history by extending his record as the nation’s longest-serving governor.
Don’t underestimate the mustache’s impact on the vote.
“Branstad without his trimmed lip blanket would be politically dead, because no one would recognize him,” said Steffen W. Schmidt, Iowa State University political science professor.
Jokes aside, when it comes to mustaches, Mr. Branstad and his facial hair are an outlier in modern American politics.
Just as bell-bottoms and thigh-hugging basketball shorts have become fashion nonos, the mustache — once a telltale sign of masculinity — has fallen on tough times in political circles, where most elected leaders are turning their backs on the Burt Reynolds and Billy Dee Williams look by lopping off their facial fur.
“Beards and ’staches are out for now in politics,” Mr. Schmidt said. “I overheard some solid Iowans at a reception this year comment about a notable guest with a beard, saying, ‘He looks dirty, don’t you think?’”
Adam Paul Causgrove, self-described president and chairman of the American Mustache Institute, said it is a troubling state of affairs.
“Really, it is sad,” Mr. Causgrove said, “because we have a very large demographic of mustached Americans who just aren’t being represented in our current state of politics.”
Mr. Causgrove, who was named Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the year in 2012, said it is different at the grass-roots level.
“On the community level, with social workers, you seem to see a lot of facial hair, jeans and boots and flannel,” he said. “But once you get into statewide and national politics, the special interest seems to take over, and they have an almost scripted sort of body that they want to put out there — very generic, very clean-shaven, not as dynamic as we may have seen in the past.” Others are OK with the decline. “I was in a fraternity in college, and if someone was coming through with facial hair, he wasn’t getting a bid,” said Kevin Broughton, Tea Party Patriots spokesman. “With all due deference to Gov. Branstad and any conservative members of the, um, ‘Mustache Caucus,’ furry lips have an air of overcompensation to me. Either make a statement — like, say, Ambrose Burnside — or go clean-shaven,” Mr. Broughton said, alluding to the Civil War general and later senator from Rhode Island.
It has been more than a century since a president, William Howard Taft, who served from 1909 to 1913, sported a mustache. The portly Republican took the reins from Theodore Roosevelt, who had become synonymous with the battle over San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, where he, riding on horseback, led the Rough Riders with a mustache.
Mustaches, meanwhile, are flourishing in other parts of the world.
“There are a lot of other countries that don’t necessarily have these peaks and valleys,” Mr. Causgrove said. “India is a country that we look to and appreciate. They never seem to ebb.” (New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sports a full beard and mustache, as did his predecessor.)
Back home, Mr. Branstad and Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon are the last remaining governors who are leading their states with nose neighbors.
Losses on the Hill
The situation is just as bleak in the U.S. Senate.
The only ‘stache-wearing lawmakers in the world’s greatest deliberative body are Angus King, Maine independent, and John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican.
The House, meanwhile, also is losing some of its most epic mustaches thanks to a series of retirements from the likes of California Reps. George Miller and Henry Waxman.
Making matters worse, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the best-known mustache in President Obama’s Cabinet for the past six years, announced last month he was stepping down.
Still, the Washington scene can boast former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, and the last remaining mustache stronghold on Capitol Hill is the Congressional Black Caucus, where about half of the men sport a mustache — not even counting the goatees and beards.
Matt Hickam, a Kansas-based GOP strategist, said some campaign strategists fear that mustaches make politicians look shady and that they carry with them some bad juju. Thomas E. Dewey, who lost to Harry Truman in 1948 in the most famous upset in U.S. political history, was mocked as resembling “the little man on the wedding cake” in part because of his dark mustache.
Mr. Hickam also pointed to the 2002 gubernatorial election in Kansas between Democrat Kathleen Sebelius and Republican Tim Shallenburger. “He has a mustache, and there were people who were telling him he needed to shave his mustache off because studies show that people with facial hair are perceived as less honest, and he said he is not going to shave it off because his wife liked it.”
Mr. Shallenburger went on to lose the election by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin.
As for Mr. Branstad, he might as well have a lucky rabbit’s foot sitting atop his upper lip.
He first grew his mustache after he got out of the service in 1971, and the following year he decided to run for the Iowa state House of Representatives.
“His mother told him that he’d never get elected with a mustache,” said Jimmy Centers, a Branstad spokesman. “His wife Chris — then [his] girlfriend — after seeing pictures of him without the mustache, told him to never shave it. The governor kept the mustache, won the seat in the Iowa House as a law school student and has never lost an election — all with the mustache.”
The mustache has become so linked to Mr. Branstad that his Democratic opponent, Jack Hatch, shaved his off in his first ad of the general election campaign.
“There is only one thing that Branstad and Jack Hatch have in common, and for Jack that is one thing too many,” the narrator says in the ad before the video pans to a clean-shaven Mr. Hatch.
Mr. Branstad, meanwhile, has developed a cultlike following. His supporters have been known to sport fake mustaches and refer to his as the “Branstash.”
There is also a Twitter user who goes by the handle “Branstad’s mustache” and keeps followers entertained with zany one-liners like “Tom Selleck went as me for Halloween,” “about to go mustache-deep in a bowlful of stuffing” and, on July 4th, “American flag in one hand, hot dog in the other, sparkler in the mustache.”
Even Mr. Branstad’s rivals are having fun with the mustache.
“I think he would fit in in Brooklyn,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist. “He is the world’s oldest hipster.”
Iowa’s Terry Branstad is one of two current governors with a mustache.
William Howard Taft