Mitt Romney’s Likeability Gap
The number of things that end up deciding a Presidential election are, perhaps, as numerous as the number of people who vote. There are, of course, the rock-ribbed Republicans and the die-hard Democrats who will vote for their parties nominee regardless of who it might be, but there aren’t enough members of either group to elect someone President. In order to win, candidates need to appeal to that vast group in the middle of American politics that are usually called independents or “swing voters,” and what motivates them can depend on whatever state the country is in at the time of the election.
One thing that’s become clear, though, especially since televisions started playing such a bug role in Presidential campaigns is that before Americans are going to vote for a guy to be President they have to at least like him first. It may not be the deciding factor in an election, but it seems axiomatic that if voters don’t like the guy running, they’re probably going to be unlikely to vote for him. Indeed, one could go back through every election since 1960 and make the case that, ultimately, the candidate that won was the one who came across as more likeable. It’s not so much, I think, because voters are picking the candidate they would like to “have a beer with,” to borrow a recent popular media meme, but because voters are more likely go give the candidate they like more of the benefit of the doubt during the course of the election.
That’s why Republicans should be worried about what clearly seems to be Mitt Romney’s likeability gap:
Registered voters are nearly twice as likely to say Barack Obama, rather than Mitt Romney, is the more likable of the two presidential candidates. Obama’s 60% to 31% advantage on this characteristic is the largest for either candidate on five separate dimensions tested in a May 1-2 USA Today/Gallup poll.
In fact, Obama leads or statistically ties Romney on each of the five dimensions tested in the poll. He holds a significant lead on caring about the needs of people and being a strong and decisive leader. Romney’s best showing is on managing the government effectively, for which he holds a slight but not statistically meaningful 46% to 43% edge over Obama.
As would be expected, Republicans see Romney as the candidate who better exemplifies each of the five positive characteristics, while Democrats choose Obama for all five. Obama’s overall advantages are due to his stronger showing among independents, and slightly higher scores among Democrats than Romney receives among Republicans, on most characteristics.
Indeed, it’s the President’s Obama advantages among independent on likeability and these other personal impression questions that is most striking:
Even on Romney’s chief selling point, the ability to manage the government based on his record in business, he only leads Obama by 6 points among Independents, which isn’t exactly anything to write home about. On likeability, he trails among independents by a rather mind-blowing 31 points. Now, granted, these numbers are coming at the end of a long, grueling primary campaign during which Romney was attacked relentlessly by his opponents and by the Obama campaign, which never really lost focus on the idea that Romney would be the nominee after the whole thing ended. It’s sort of inevitable that his image would be a bit tarnished after all of that. Traditionally, of course, campaigns have dealt with this by doing a campaign “relaunch” after winning the nomination, spending the summer touring the country and reintroducing the candidate to the country as they gear up for the General Election. Romney’s campaign will no doubt follow this same strategy, but one has to wonder if those old campaign methods will really work in a 365/24/7 news cycle world where everything you said three months ago is still available on video, and can easily be put in a web video that can go viral in a matter of hours. In that kind of world, a candidate’s ability to reinvent themselves in the course of a campaign is, arguably, far more limited.
The good news for Romney, perhaps, is that he’s actually still at the point where there’s a not-insubstantial number of people who say they haven’t formed an opinion about his likability yet. Most of the favorability polls that have been taken recently put the “undecided number for Romney in the mid-to-high teens, for Obama it’s in the single digits. This suggests that there is room out there for Romney to close the likeability gap as people get to know him better, especially if he makes this election about managerial competence.
The only problem there is that Mitt Romney’s biggest problem is, well, Mitt Romney. As we saw during the Republican campaign, Romney has this amazing ability to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, whether it’s an out-of-context quote about liking to fire people or the comment that he “doesn’t care” about the very poor. Then, of course, there are the oddities in his stump speeches that seem to suggest that he’s not nearly as comfortable with one-on-one campaigning as someone like Obama, or Bill Clinton, or even George W. Bush. The probability that Romney will do something to reinforce the doubts about him between now and Election Day are fairly high, and that could make any effort to reintroduce him to the public fall completely apart.
That’s all for the future, of course. Right now, Mitt Romney has a serious likeability problem and, unless he fixes it, everything his campaign does between now and November could end up being for naught.