Speaking at a fundraiser last Thursday, Barack Obama called California attorney general Kamala Harris "by far the best-looking attorney general in the country." On Friday, after taking considerable heat for this, he apologized. That pretty much closed out the issue for me. It was a modest mistake, quickly corrected.
But how much difference does this kind of thing make, anyway? Today, the Name It, Change It campaign released a survey conducted earlier this year on exactly this subject. In the survey, Jane Smith and Dan Jones are pitted against each other in a race for Congress. Both have similar backgrounds, and after reading their bios the survey respondents prefer Jane slightly, 49-48.
Then they read a second story. In one version of the story, there's no physical description of either candidate, and Jane's lead stays pretty much the same. In a second version, there's a neutral description of Jane's appearance. Suddenly she's 5 points behind Dan. In a third version, there's a positive description of her appearance. Now she's 13 points behind Dan. A fourth version that contains a negative description has about the same effect.
In other words, any description hurts Jane. And any non-neutral description, even a positive one, just kills her. This is why even a complimentary comment like Obama's is both inappropriate and damaging in a professional setting. It primes people to think of a woman's appearance, and that's apparently enough to keep them from thinking about her actual qualifications. You will be unsurprised to learn that this effect is strongest among men. The full report is here. (Via ThinkProgress.)