An article handicapping Mitt Romney's chances at ending up the GOP nominee in today's New York Times interestingly called Romney the eat-your-vegetables candidate, a label meant convey political analysts' contention that the former Massachussets governor is both the healthiest alternative for the Republican party, and the one voters are dreading the most.
A more literal interpretation, that Romney's healthy ways could be a detriment to his electability, might be just as accurate.
As has been reported by various media outlets, Mitt Romney is perhaps the healthiest-living Republican presidential candidate ever. A life-long Mormon, Romney does not drink or smoke cigarettes (and it would not be stretch to imagine that, unlike the last three presidents, he's never dabbled with illegal drugs). As The Los Angeles Times reported in 2008 Romney starts every morning with a bowl of granola with oats, honey, sesame seeds and almonds and then jogs three miles. A Boston Examiner article from earlier this year mentioned Romney's family organizes family triathlons when they go on vacation. Even on the campaign trail, the Examiner article goes on to say, his choice of fast food is Subway turkey sandwiches.
While Romney is unlikely to release any medical records at this point in the campaign, he has had no health maladies reported in the media. This is in contrast to the two other candidates considered front-runners in the Republican race: Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Bachmann has been haunted by allegations of ill health since a piece on the Daily Caller suggested she suffers from a migraine condition that can “incapacitate her for days at time and quotes an unnamed adviser saying she carries and takes all sorts of pills. For his part, Perry's bill of health was questioned in a New York Times article that noted a recent spine fusion surgery for a recurring back ailment.
If the historical record holds, however, Mitt's healthy ways might not be a boon. An analysis of every single non-incumbent Republican to have won a presidential primary in the modern primary era (after 1968) shows every single person chosen to vie for a position as Leader of the Free World has been nominated with a baggage of health concerns. The list is as follows:
John McCain (winner of 2008 primaries)
By the time he was chosen as the Republican candidate, McCain was a 71-year old who had battled several bouts of melanoma, had high cholesterol and blood pressure, and a severely enlarged prostate. The malignant melanoma issue, which he had last faced in 2002, was particularly troubling. An ABCNews report from 2008 notes the 10-year survival rate of the type of skin cancer is 65%. McCain was 8 years out, which roughly means Republican voters were picking as their candidate someone with a more than 1-in-3 chance of dying of skin cancer within the next two years. The enlarged prostate issue was no joke either. A pool report filed documenting McCain's medical records stated constant travel and riding a jet ski in recent years had caused his condition to worsen so much he had urinated blood.
George W. Bush (winner of 2000 primaries)
The exercise regime noted by Bush’s campaign in 2000 is that of a dedicated athlete, able to run several miles a day at a speed of between 7 to 8 minutes per mile and having a resting heart rate of 43 beats per minute (in general, a lower number indicates a higher level of fitness: 60 beats per minute is considered very fit, Lance Armstrong’s lowest reported resting heart rate was 32 beats per minute). Of course, some of these numbers might have been dressed up.
Although he always denied being an alcoholic, Bush admitted to drinking heavily until he turned 40, so much so that alcohol began to compete with my energies”. Bush’s main health concerns seem to have related to sheer clumsiness. Before his presidency, he suffered surgery-requiring sports injuries to both his back and knee. As president, he famously lost consciousness in 2002 choking on an improperly-chewed pretzel. He also notably fell off a Segway in 2003. Less famously, he managed to hurt himself while bicycling in the rain, twice, in 2004 and 2005.
Bob Dole (winner of 1996 primaries)
Had he been elected in 1996, Bob Dole would have been the oldest person ever to be inaugurated as president for a first term. As such, he had an amalgam of health issues. First and foremost, was the colon cancer he had battled, having had his colon removed a few years before his final presidential bid. He also had to deal with kidney stones at least once. While he claimed to exercise, the then-Senator admitted to the LA Times in 1995 that, having spent 26 years in the chamber he “didn’t even know where the Senate gym” was.
George Bush, Sr. (winner of 1988 primaries)
Bush was known to have had bleeding ulcers in his 40s and, in general, was not a man of good gastrointestinal health. While this aspect of his health was not the most bothersome to his presidency (an episode of previously undiagnosed thyroid problems led to a health scare in May of 1991), he did once throw up on the prime minister of Japan during a formal dinner.
Ronald Reagan (winner of 1980 primaries)
Reagan was severely near-sighted. In a 1994 book, it was revealed that, as a college football player, his field of vision was limited to the square yard in front of him. During the campaign trail, his sight issues caused him to engage in the ritual of popping out one contact lens before giving a speech, so that he could read his notes with one eye and look at the crowd with the other. Reagan’s most famous health issue, however, was his memory loss, which was eventually diagnosed as a symptom of Alzheimer’s. Because of the unwillingness of the media at the time to lambast a candidate for a health issue (particularly, a mental health issue that at the time might have seemed like a character quirk), it is hard to determine if Reagan was exhibiting signs of forgetfulness on the primary trail. By 1984, however, his personal diaries do note episodes of peculiar memory loss.
So why would Republican primary voters be inclined to vote for such unhealthy candidates? One possible answer is that candidates who reveal that they practice particularly healthy lifestyles, as Romney has done, are open to be attacked by others as elitist arugula-eaters. The image of a candidate refusing a deep-fried treat at any of the dozen state fairs where making an appearance is imperative would be a PR disaster, and the campaigns know it. In 2000, for example, the Bush campaign sought to keep the image of Bush as the candidate voters would most like to have a beer with in spite of the inconvenient fact that Bush had sworn off alcohol in his 40s.
Indeed voters are happy to ignore shortcomings in health if they believe a candidate thinks like them. Nobody cares if the president needs bifocals, said Dr. John Sotos, who under the alias Dr. Zebra, runs a website cataloguing the documented medical histories of all U.S. presidents. What they do care about, says Dr. Sotos is that the President can perform his sworn duties: Read information, process the information and output the information. The challenge, Dr. Sotos is quick to note, is determining if said information-processing is being compromised by ill health.
Ultimately, the voters might believe someone willing to subject themselves to the stresses of the Oval Office in spite of bad health (and who might blame said bad health on previous years of stressful public service) is actually someone whose selflessness is to be admired. In their mind, says Dr. Sotos, the mission comes first.