Is likability the key to ‘12 victory?

April 30, 2012


And so now we take on the question that has haunted you since the seventh grade: How important is it to be well-liked?

At Shaw Junior High, where I spent my seventh grade, it was pretty important. But in presidential politics? We’re about to find out.

This is an unusual race for the White House in many respects. The incumbent came into office on a wave of adulation unlike any in modern times — more so than John F. Kennedy, more so than Ronald Reagan. Even so, as he runs for re-election the polls put him in a dead heat with former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

Romney, by contrast, has few fervent fans. Polls show that the public is skeptical of how deeply he believes in his own campaign statements and is hesitant to warm up to him. He’s knowledgeable enough, these polls suggest, but not adept at building rapport with voters.

The result is that the United States is about to conduct its greatest test in more than four decades of the power of personality, measuring whether in tough times a man with difficulty relating to average Americans can defeat an incumbent with a mixed record but natural personal skills.

The best comparison may be 1968, when the man who was the more natural campaigner, the man with the warmer personality, the man who was more at ease with himself, was defeated by a rival who was awkward on the stump, cold in person and visibly uncomfortable in his own skin. In that election, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey was defeated by former Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

There were, to be sure, many complicating factors in that election. Young people were rebelling, African-Americans were challenging the moral order, and the nation was divided on the Vietnam War — and that’s before we factor in the unusual element of a strong third party candidacy from former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama.

In the face of all that, a country in crisis turned to an experienced but unappealing hand, which seems unremarkable except when you consider that in 1920, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008, the candidate considered more personable prevailed. The candidates who appeared more competent but lost include Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 and Nixon in 1960.

It is still six months to this year’s election, and it may turn out that Campaign 2012 is a dogma-eat-dogma race, pitting the Obama ethos of economic stimuli, higher taxes on the wealthy and an aggressive regulatory apparatus against the Romney ethos of lower taxes, less spending and an emphasis on business issues and economic growth.

Consider these findings from the latest New York Times/CBS News poll: Obama’s favorability ratings are nearly half again as high as Romney’s and he outpaces his challenger 47 percent to 34 percent as “someone you can relate to.” Romney has slender leads as someone who would “make the right decisions about the economy” and improve voters’ financial situations.

Those results are generally mirrored in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, where Romney prevails in two areas (changing business as usual in Washington and having good ideas for improving the economy) and where Obama prevails in all the rest (including being compassionate, caring about average people and being easygoing and likable).

Ordinarily, Romney tacticians might take these indicators and shape a message broadly along these lines: We are living in difficult times and what is required is intelligent, tough leadership, not an appealing fellow whose ideas haven’t revived the economy or strengthened the nation’s position in the world. But Romney’s profile as someone who has changed his beliefs and repudiated his record makes that argument more difficult to make.

The Times/CBS pollsters asked whether each candidate says what he believes most of the time or what he thinks people want to hear, and the result was stark, with Obama scoring 46 percent for saying what he believes, far outpacing Romney’s 27 percent. Add in Obama’s advantages in the Journal/NBC poll as the candidate who is more honest and straightforward and who is more consistent in standing up for his beliefs, and you see the Romney challenge in sharp relief.

“Often likability reflects the fact the candidates or presidents are doing something well,” says John Geer, a Vanderbilt University expert on presidential elections and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll. “That’s where the Obama disconnect is. Romney’s task is to bring that into alignment by showing that the favorability ratings on Obama are premature and that there are in fact a lot of problems that voters can lay on Obama as a person.”

The flip side is that, while Obama, as the saying goes, needs no introduction, Romney still has a chance to introduce himself to many Americans. Indeed, he’s been scrutinized only by a minority of Republicans thus far. He’s been bruised by the nomination fight — but also toughened by it.

This presidential election is not even close to over. But even though it is primarily about Obama, not Romney, Romney has more work to do in the next half year than Obama does. Only on television is the Cookie Monster lovable.

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Liberty_One 6 years ago

Ya'll should start getting used to the idea that Obama is going to win. Regardless, does it rally matter who wins? I mean, Ben Bernanke is still going to rule this country either way, so what does it matter who the #2 guy is?

Carol Bowen 6 years ago

The Federal Reserve Board has been very prominent since about 1980. Why?

cato_the_elder 6 years ago

"...Romney still has a chance to introduce himself to many Americans. Indeed, he’s been scrutinized only by a minority of Republicans thus far. He’s been bruised by the nomination fight — but also toughened by it."

That's the whole race in an nutshell. If Obama were anything close to a capable president, his poll numbers would be much better than they are.

Assuming that Romney and his advisers make a good choice for his running mate, those Americans who still believe in the rights of individual citizens to live their lives freely, who wish for America once more to be viewed with respect internationally, and who are committed to preventing the further growth of liberal Democrats' nanny state schemes will all vote, and will vote overwhelmingly to elect Romney.

cato_the_elder 6 years ago

Of course. America cannot stand four more years of Obama.

JayhawksandHerd 6 years ago

So, the primary reason to vote for Romney is that "he's not Obama." Gotcha.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

Actually, when there are only two realistic choices for winner, that reason is as good as any, isn't it? We always make decisions based on expected value. Why should presidential elections be any different?

jaywalker 6 years ago

I'd be willing to bet that a solid 35% of voters will contend that very thing post-election. J&Herd. Pay attention.

JayhawksandHerd 6 years ago

Sure they will, because they're too lazy and/or uninterested to do any research on their own. That still doesn't make it a compelling reason for the rest of us.

Carol Bowen 6 years ago

That's the only policy proposed so far. The GOP has no other sense of purpose. They've lost their goals and objectives. No longer conservative, but radical.

JayhawksandHerd 6 years ago

What exactly is your point? Private donors shouldn't spend money as they see fit? PACs supporting Democrats = bad, and PACs supporting Republicans = good?

JayhawksandHerd 6 years ago

And this applies to Romney's current stance on the Affordable Care Act as well, correct?

JayhawksandHerd 6 years ago

  1. Funny, I must have slept through the Supreme Court ruling.

  2. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney had to balance the budget. That argument is moot.

  3. Romney's goal was that everyone to pays for his or her own health care, and the Affordable Care Act accomplishes just that. The problem I see with the latter is that it doesn't go far enough, considering a majority of Americans support universal health care.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

Romney's primary defense of MassHealth, is that mandating commerce on the state level is fine, but not on the federal level.

When I first heard that defense, I rolled my eyes. Most who oppose the mandate would oppose it on any level, federal, state or local.

However, Romney is astute. The mandate can only survive under the interstate commerce clause. But the constitutional question is, can the federal government mandate commerce in order to regulate it? I think the the SCOTUS will say no, since it would open up a very scary can of worms.

If the mandate gets struck down, the administration will have a lot of work to do to make the PPACA work like it's supposed to -- like it does in Mass.

If the whole PPACA shebang falls, then Obama will have an extremely difficult time getting re-elected as people come to grips with the fact that a tremendous amount of resources were put into something that just got flushed down the toilet.

JayhawksandHerd 6 years ago

Good points. It's unfortunate so much of the debate centers on ideology instead of workable solutions beyond the status quo. Par for the course, I suppose.

Paul R Getto 6 years ago

"Clearly Obama is more preoccupied with being re-elected than any other commander-in-chief of modern times." === Any interesting assertion; how did you reach this conclusion?

Armstrong 6 years ago

Like the majority of your posts

chootspa 6 years ago

Oooh, great website. Here's the link for anyone else that wanted to go look it up now that you mentioned it. http://www.keepinggophonest.com/behind-the-curtain-a-brief-history-of-romneys-donors

JayhawksandHerd 6 years ago

I wasn't a fan of the "McSame" rhetoric, either. That being said, I've yet to see any reason to believe Cato's assertions. I don't buy the notion that Romney suddenly became some internationally respected fiscal conservative when his record demonstrates otherwise. He'll continue to campaign from the right and, if elected, govern from the center, just as Obama campaigned from the left and governs from the center.

Paul R Getto 6 years ago

+1 All politicians channel Richard Nixon on this issue. Toss out the red meat; watch the attack dogs scramble; get elected and move towards the middle. Is this because, perhaps, 70-80% of Americans are in this middle ground?

gudpoynt 6 years ago

Probably. Isn't it odd how a handful of colossally stupid people (like math whiz above) shouting from the fringes seem to comprise a much larger collective voice they actually have?

I think there is an 80-20 principle at work here. Eighty percent of us are complacent being just "middle ground", while it's the remaining 20% that really do all the crazy.

bevy 6 years ago

So you're a dog? Cannibalism=eating one's own kind. If you are a dog, kudos on the mad reading and typing skills.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

The crucify dude went under the bus today. Must be getting crowded down there.

chootspa 6 years ago

Yes. Backwards is a slogan more becoming of a true conservative.

chootspa 6 years ago

I'm sure you're trying very hard to say something, but it looks a lot like you had half the conversation in your own head instead of typing it out.

chootspa 6 years ago

That was not an insult, Penders. That was an observation. You are incoherent.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

Too bad for Romney we didn't fall into a double dip recession. Too bad unemployment didn't stay over 10% for longer. Too bad the economy continues to improve.

Romney's main ammo now is that the economy isn't growing fast enough. Well, that and the crushing debt that has yet to actually crush anybody.

If the economy picks up in the next 3 months, he's in trouble. If unemployment falls in the next 3 months, he's in trouble. That could be all she wrote for the Rom...

... unless of course the SCOTUS repeals the mandate which was his brain child. He could then spin his version of MassHealth as "A-OK" because his version of the health insurance mandate only applies to a few million people, which it TOTALLY cool, right?!

Hey Justice Scalia, R2D2 has a message for you from Mr. Romney: "Help me Antonin, you're my only hope."

gudpoynt 6 years ago

Crushing the value of the dollar compared to what exactly?

And Moody's didn't drop our credit rating because of the amount of debt we have. They dropped our credit rating because Tea Party freshmen threatened to fail to raise the debt ceiling, which would have resulted in defaulting on our debt.

Had they not balked, and had congress raised the debt ceiling as they have routinely done in the past, allowing us to pile on more crushing debt, then Moody's would not have dropped our credit rating. The size of the debt was not the factor in Moody's decision, it was our willingness (or threatened lack thereof) to continue to pay our obligations. Check your (extremely recent) history.

Regardless, the gargantuan debt is something that both parties should be able to run on. Nobody likes it. And it's a fallacy by conservatives to think it is not a concern of liberals as well.

chootspa 6 years ago

The value of our dollar relative to other currencies would actually improve our "crushing debt" situation were it to fall. They attempted to do a little of this earlier.

Gudpoynt already addressed your false assessment of the Moody's situation, so I won't go into that, but our percentage of debt as a portion of GDP is actually not historically high. That honor happend in the 1940s.

chootspa 6 years ago

I don't agree with the interest rate policy, which is separate from the debt issue. Keep in mind that some of the risky investing behavior also comes from insanely low tax rates for capital gains. And some of it comes from our apparent refusal to regulate these "too big to fail" banks. The free market is magical, especially when you know there are no true consequences for your actions. There's a heap of policy decisions I disagree with and that would not change for the better under Romney.

All of that. All of it. Is separate from the debt issue.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

poor, cwazy, white-wing, webuplicans..

You can thank Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, and Grand Puba GW for priming the country for a dramatic shift to the left in 2008.

You can thank Sarah Palin for dragging anchor on the McCain ship, helping to ensure Obama victory.

You can thank Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity and much of the Tea Party for supplying the red rubber nose and the oversized shoes.

You can thank Norquist, McConnel, Boehner, and Tea Party freshmen for 4 years of congressional impotence.

You can thank Brownback, Scott Walker, and Jan Brewer for hammering down on the wedge that is splitting the moderates from the uber-cons.

And you can thank Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Santorum for the rise of the Romney as the only viable option for political revenge against the evil Obama.

As for your continued role in the delegitimization of the "the party formerly known as the GOP", you have only yourself to thank.

Keep up the good crazy. Reveal your GOP political identity to the world. Obama is counting on you.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

Geniuses like yourself of course. Give yourself a pat on the back for all that the Teapublicans have managed to accomplish over the past two years, which includes:

1) reduction in the U.S. credit rating by playing chicken with the debt ceiling (something that Bohner and Cantor had to patiently explain to the genius Tea Party freshmen as move that was monumentally and dangerously stupid).

2) There is no #2. That's the only thing Teapublicans have managed to accomplish. You should be proud.

At least the 111th congress was able to pass the most ambitious health care and financial sector reforms in two generations. You despise them of course, like a good little Teapublican, but at least it's an accomplishment.

Like I said, keep up the good crazy that makes your team look like a bunch of clowns. And keep up the bitter, uninformed sensationalism that has the level-headed members of your party face palming in incredulous embarrassment.

Don't you see? You are to the GOP, what the most extreme Occupy protester is to Democrats!

You are the clutzy fireman who set's the neighboring house ablaze. You are the keystone cop who wounds the hostage with your single bullet. You are the hapless sailor who drops the anchor through the hull. Your heart is in the right place, but your head is up your.

And therein lies your genius. Keep up the good crazy my friend.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

the fact that you refer to OWS as Obama's core base is evidence that you need to unplug your ears from Fauxbot mouthpiece.

Discontent for Obama among OWS protesters is plentiful. It just happens to pale in comparison to the discontent for capitalism run amok, and the typical right wing modus operandi.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

Pigeonholing your opposition into idolaters of an infallible persona must make it remarkably easier for you to hate on Obama, huh?

The population who sees Obama as faultless seems to be much, much larger in the context of your closed mind, than it is in the real world where the rest of us live.

But your comments suggest that you are too much of an intellectual sluggard to think about such "reality based" concepts.

Whatever flips your pancake buddy. But until you begin to incorporate even a shred of reason into your musings, they will forever remain at the bottom of the public opinion barrel, valued by nobody except maybe those who wallow down there with you.

I'm not saying your opinions are worthless simply because they differ from mine. I'm saying your opinions are worthless because they are scarcely based in reality, and almost exclusively focused on expressing your inner jerk. Cheers.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

How's the general strike, occupy everything business coming off today? Has the public defecation started already?

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

In other news, some occupy dudes are in jail this afternoon after being arrested for trying to blow up a highway bridge in Ohio.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

More wonderfully astute observations from one of the brightest shining beacons of integrity to grace the public forum.

Unlike the idiotic ramblings of some people, your copy and paste selections are pure gold. Keep up the good work, enlightening us with your keen insights, O master of wisdom and wit!

I can't wait to show this to my poli-sci buddies. They are sure to be floored.

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