When it comes to the United States presidency, kids vote for the darnedest things. It seems as though they can see right through political image.
Years ago, my eldest son, about 7 then, came into the room while an Al Gore for president commercial was on TV and said, "He's gonna lose." Asked to explain, he said, "His eyes look too worried."
I realize that relying on children to predict the president is a little like relying on Princess, the New Jersey camel who picked the NFL winners. However, Princess did pick the New York Giants to win the Super Bowl this year, so maybe there is a little something to basic animal instinct.
Children don't accept "vote for the party, not the person" as a way of choosing a leader. They look the candidate in the eye to see if anybody they like is in there.
And call it like they see it.
According to my baby book, at age 6, I said to my mother's business associate, "My mommy's 42 years old, but she looks way younger than you and you're supposed to be the same age, right? Maybe you should check your birthday." Lucky for me, my mother was a big Art Linkletter fan and laughed it off.
I met Mr. Linkletter last year when he was on a book tour, told him that tale and that I now have four sons. He winked and said, "Kids are the mirror we should look into more often. You're lucky to have so many. You'll never miss an angle!"
When I began to notice children discussing the elections this year I decided to look into their reflections of the candidates. I talked to several dozen youngsters, then took a random dozen for an impromptu vote. I stuck to the 7- and 8-year-old range my son had been in when he made his Gore observation. Norfolk has a diverse racial base, and while it is a military town, it is also a university village and a city that votes blue in a red state.
The votes are in, along with some of my favorite sound bites:
Sen. John McCain: Eight votes. "He looks really real, like his hair's white. His face and smile doesn't look too perfect and fake," said a girl, age 7. Another boy, age 9, gave his vote to Senator McCain because, "He looks really tough. I bet he's scary when he's mad." (This standard didn't apply for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
Sen. Barack Obama: Six votes. Said one boy, age 8: "He looks really happy and if the president is happy the people will be happy." Another boy, 9, said, "He's tall so everybody will listen to him." One little girl, 6 years old, said, "I don't know. I need to see him look at me more."
SenatorClinton: Zero votes. "She looks like somebody's in trouble," said a boy, age 7. (As a voter I don't necessarily consider that a bad thing, but it turned off the kids.) One girl, 9 years old, shook her head saying, "It's just not going to be a woman and if it was it'd be Oprah!"
I took a second bite out of that apple of truth when the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in Boston released a study in which it traced the family trees of all three presidential candidates. The local newspaper ran photos of Senator Obama with Brad Pitt, Clinton with Angelina Jolie and McCain with first lady Laura Bush in a sort of side-by-side comparison of genetic mug shots.
I took the newspaper to the park and showed it to a pack of Girl Scouts selling cookies outside a local market.
Out of all the mug shots the children believed only Mr. Pitt was truly happy, pegging the others as "camera smiles." McCain got sympathy votes from young boys nearby for having to be compared "to a girl." The first lady worried them with nearly every child asking if she was ill. Even smiling Clinton was still "angry." Obama was judged "tense" and "a nice guy who looks really tired." One little girl called Pitt "fierce," but this was a compliment having to do with the TV show Project Runway, which has recoined the word to mean edgy and not scary.
Would I bet the ranch on a presidential candidate chosen by a child? Consider this: Every child to whom I have ever shown a photo of President Bush was drawn to him and said they would pick him because he was someone they understood.
Children do seem to be a unique divining rod for finding when a candidate has lost heart, looks sick, tired, mean, scared, or confused. Perhaps when entering the voting booth the majority of voters are so overwhelmed by all the conflicting information, slick ads, and responsibility of the action they are about to take that they just fall back on listening to their inner child.
Instead of putting millions of dollars a week into campaign ads and polls from now until November, maybe candidates should donate a chunk to early education programs. That way everybody wins.
• Lisa Suhay writes from Norfolk, Va., and is the author of eight children's books.