Presidential Debate: The Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump Podium War (Guest Column)

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From Bill Clinton using a high stool against Ross Perot to Michael Dukakis' riser, height has always beeen a factor when candidates face off in person.

The latest controversy to rock this already bizarre election is the claim that at tonight’s presidential debate, Hillary Clinton will have a special podium designed to make her look taller.

The height difference between Clinton and Donald Trump is probably the largest since the 5-foot-4 James Madison squared off against the 6-foot-3 DeWitt Clinton in 1812. I say "probably" because there is no agreement on the height of either Clinton or Trump. Internet sources put Clinton’s height at anywhere from 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-7. Reports of Trump’s height range from 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-3. Perhaps this should be expected with two candidates known to play fast and loose with the truth, and especially with Trump, who famously misnumbers floors to make people think his buildings are taller than they really are.

Americans have long obsessed over candidate heights. For many years, the conventional wisdom in politics was that the taller candidate almost always won the presidential election. It may have been this belief that led the 5-foot-8 Michael Dukakis to use a riser in his 1988 debates against the 6-foot-2 George H. W. Bush. For this, Dukakis was mocked in a Saturday Night Live skit that showed him (played by Jon Lovitz) raising and lowering himself at the podium loudly accompanied by the sound of a hydraulic lift. In the same debate, Bush was accused of using an overly long handshake with Dukakis as a way of accentuating their height difference.

Four years later, the Clinton campaign was accused of swapping out the stools on the debate stage for taller ones that Clinton had used in his practice debates. This made no difference for Clinton and Bush, who were the same height, but the stools were much too high for the 5-foot-5 Ross Perot, who shared the stage with them that night.

Recent elections, however, have been much more favorable to shorter candidates. George W. Bush won two elections against taller opponents, and in 2012 Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney despite being a half-inch shorter.

No one knows better than Clinton how being shorter can sometimes work to your advantage. During the first debate in the 2000 U.S. Senate race in New York, her opponent, Republican Congressman Rick Lazio, walked over to Clinton and demanded that she sign a campaign finance pledge. The move certainly highlighted the height difference between the candidates, but Lazio’s stunt was viewed by many as intimidating, bullying, and sexist.

It’s no wonder that Lazio is now advising Trump to stay behind his podium.

Phil Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College.

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