Is likability the key to ‘12 victory?

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.