Mitt Romney’s Likeability Gap

Mitt Romney has a big problem. People don't seem to like him very much.

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.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Romney’s problem is that while he wants to be a politician he doesn’t like to campaign. He comes off as bored, he comes off as someone who objects to the idea he has to pander to the plebes. There is nothing he can do about it – that’s who he is.

  2. bobbo says:

    Richard Nixon won twice and he was more likeable than, oh, nobody.

  3. Jr says:

    @bobbo: Not even comparable. Nixon was well-liked by suburban americans who were fed up with the young radicals and minorities whom they felt were out of control.

    Outside of old people and desperate Republicans, no one likes Mitt Romney.

  4. Personally, I think “likeability” is an overrated trait in Presidential candidates. I’ve voting for them to run the country, not to hang out with me. I’m far more concerned about whether they’re capable of succeeding at their job. If they are, I don’t really care if I like them or not.

  5. sam says:

    Mitt’s a stiff.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Richard Nixon won twice and he was more likeable than, oh, nobody.

    Before Watergate, Nixon was by and large a popular president. And while we now know about the dark side of his personality, I know a few people that met him and they seemed to agree that he could be charming when he wished to, and had quite a sharp wit. For all his well documented flaws, he was certainly a brilliant man, and that can have considerable attraction.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    The ‘likeability factor” is tricky.

    Remember how we were told that Bush won two elections (well, at least one) because compared with Gore and Kerry, he was a guy you could have a beer with? Maybe, but I’ve never wanted to elect the guy at the bar president.

    I think Romney is slipping into dangerous territory – he appears to have no convictions whatsoever. Whether that appeals to enough voters who despise President Obama remains to be seen.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Don’t worry, the RomneyBot design team is still hoping to locate Data’s lost personality chip before November.

  9. Scott F. says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I agree. The problem for Romney is he’s got a capability gap with Obama as well.

  10. Fiona says:

    Romney gives off a weird vibe. It’s as if he tried to sell his soul to the devil to win the presidency only to discover that he didn’t have one. He didn’t come off too badly in debates with his fellow Republican candidates (because most of them weren’t very likeable either) but I think he’ll have a hard time going one-on-one with Obama.

  11. LC says:

    Nixon more likable than Humphrey? No. He won by exploiting the huge anti-civil rights and pro-war feelings in the country (a strategy upon which the Republican Party continues to depend).

    I was young then but if you weren’t there, you can’t begin to understand the effect of 3 assassinations (JFK, King, and RFK), cities burning in the summer riots, campus sit-ins, and the beginning of the feminist movement (esp. the Pill and abortion rights).

    Reagan – definitely likability plus the Southern strategy. Bush 43 – combo of “I’d like to have a beer with him”, the strong anti-intellectual attitude of the voting public in general (to say nothing of a helpful U.S. Supreme Court and unhelpful Electoral College).

    On soapbox/diatribe:
    Leaders in most countries can win any election by exploiting fear, fear of the “other”, whether that fear is external (Communists, terrorists) or internal (uppity women and minorities who simply won’t accept their general inferiority to White Christian Men to say nothing, of course, of all the undeserving poor who want to be supported in luxury by the hard-working majority). And a voting public that will put the very people who wrecked the economy because liking to go to war and paying for it are two different matters back into office after a mere two years well, I’m not sure how you explain such behavior except that American voters have memories shorter than the lives of fruit flies.
    Off soapbox/end diatribe..

    What truly bothers me when it comes to Romney is what, specifically, makes him qualified to be President. I know we set the bar awfully low when we elected Obama, and his mistakes (speaking as a Democrat) in office owe a lot to his almost total lack of political (as opposed to running for office) experience.

    Running Bain hardly qualifies a man to be President. So we have to look to his experience as Governor and nobody seems to be covering that much except of course for the health care issue. DId he do anything else? What were his relations with the legislature? Why only one term?

    Lastly, his foot-in-mouth disease is not good for a candidate. But for a President who must deal with leaders around the world? (OTOH, Bush 43 thought pinching Merkel’s shoulders was a nifty idea …)

  12. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It’s all about the stupidity, economy.