wpostServer: http://css.washingtonpost.com/wpost

Can Mitt Romney be likeable? Does he need to be?

at 06:30 AM ET, 07/13/2012

Three months ago, Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. His prize? He entered the general election with the worst personal image numbers of any major party presidential nominee in recent history.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the NAACP annual convention in Houston, Texas on July 11, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/Nicholas Kamm)

Since then, things have gotten better for Romney. His favorable rating has rebounded from the low-to-mid-30s, and a few recent polls have even shown more people expressing a positive view of Romney than a negative one.

But through it all, it’s become pretty clear: Romney is not a teddy bear that people want to hug. He’s not a guy most people want to have a beer with. And the Republican base is not over-the-moon about its nominee.

The question is: Is there anything he can do about it? And perhaps more importantly, does it even matter?

There’s no doubt that, on the surface, being likeable helps. Elections are, on some level, popularity contests in which people pick a candidate based on a highly personal feeling about them.

If Romney were a more likeable candidate, then, he would probably be performing better in early polls of a very winnable race. Likability has been perhaps the one missing link for a guy with the look, the moderate credentials and the money to get it done.

This is why we’ve seen a concerted effort from Obama’s campaign and allies to define Romney early on as a corporate raider who doesn’t care about poor people. (A Spanish-language ad released Wednesday by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA featured someone saying that Romney is a “person with no feelings.” Ouch.) This is the one area where Democrats can really undermine Romney.

“Voters want to like their president,” said one Democratic strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly about strategy. “Every presidential winner since Reagan has been the more likeable candidate. It’s not an insignificant element in a presidential campaign.”

There is some anecdotal evidence that the Obama team’s effort to define Romney in this way has worked, especially in some swing states. But at the same time, Romney’s personal favorable numbers have rebounded nationwide since the primary season, so much so that a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed him on basically equal ground as the historically more likeable Obama, though still with a higher unfavorable rating than favorable rating (a.k.a. “underwater).

Can Romney’s numbers improve from here? Of course they can. A well-run campaign and a good environment can do wonders for a politicians’ image; Reagan was even underwater as his first successful campaign was ramping up in 1979.

Reagan, of course, had a much easier way with people; it’s harder to see Romney using the power of empathy to win over people in the coming months.

But empathy is just one of the ways in which people connect to a candidate. Others include believing in their ability to lead and demonstrating success in the business world.

And Republican strategists even argue that being likeable is overrated — particularly at a time when the economy is suffering and people want someone who can get things done. Obama was likeable, they argue, and look at where that has led.

“Do you want to like your current incompetent mechanic, or do you want a new mechanic to actually fix the car but forget to smile at you?,” said GOP strategist Dan Hazelwood. “This is the year when nice guys finish last and we want an economic mechanic.”

Republican strategist Mike Murphy echoed that sentiment, with a slightly different metaphor.

“When you’re flying through a bad storm, you don’t want the pilot to lead a conga line,” Murphy said.

But Murphy also acknowledged that likability is a real missing link for Romney, saying: “If every voter knew him as I do, the election would be over.”

It’s hard to see voters turning the corner on Romney in a major way in less than four months time, but there’s a lot of campaigning to do.

Our suspicion is that likability matters, as it always does, but that its weight on the grand scales of presidential politics has been reduced given the current economic uncertainty.

That said, a bump in his favorable rating would be great for Romney. And nobody is disputing that.

Senate Fundraising recap: Second quarter fundraising numbers started rolling in Thursday, and it was a big day for Democratic Senate candidates.

Here are the highlights:

- Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) raised $3 million, a personal best.

- Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) raised $1.9 million, a personal best and a huge amount of money in a small state.

- Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) raised $1.8 million and has $11 million cash on hand. He outraised Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) more than two-to-one. (Mack announced just $840,000 raised.)

- Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) raised a personal-best $1.5 million as she begins to beat back an ethics investigation.

- And former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona (D) raised a personal-best $1.1 million for the open Arizona Senate race.

The GOP turned in some solid numbers too, including Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer’s $1.3 million (her previous best was less than $230,000) and former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle’s $1.1 million.

But Democrats have been winning the fundraising battle early on — in no small part thanks to their incumbency (lots of Democrats face reelection). We’ll see if it matters this fall.

Dueling polls in Hawaii: Just a day after Lingle’s poll showed her leading the open Hawaii Senate race, Rep. Mazie Hirono (D) is out with her own poll showing the Democrat leading.

The Hirono poll, conducted by respected Democratic pollster Pete Brodnitz, shows Hirono at 53 percent and Lingle at 41 percent. Lingle’s poll had shown Lingle up 45 percent to 40 percent.

Hirono’s poll also differs from Lingle’s when it comes to the Democratic primary. Lingle’s poll had Hirono neck and neck with former congressman Ed Case, but Hirono’s poll shows her leading Case by 15 points. (Hirono is favored by the party establishment and has far outraised Case, but Case is more moderate.)

Hawaii is notoriously difficult to poll, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re getting such different results.

Fixbits:

Obama says his biggest mistake was failing to “tell a story” to the American public as he was selling his legislative goals.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) will campaign with Romney for the first time Friday in Nevada.

Kentucky will not join other red states in boycotting Obamacare, with Gov. Steve Beshear (D) announcing that the state will set up its own insurance exchange.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker will serve as one of two chairs of the Democratic National Convention’s platform committee.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says Carmona will win the Arizona Senate race.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) flashes a butter knife at his New York City colleague, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).

Must-reads:

Lines are Drawn Over Opting Out of Medicaid Plan” — Abby Goodnough, New York Times

Mitt Romney faces new round of calls to release tax returns” — Philip Rucker, Washington Post

Cruz’s Work on Case to Be Put in Campaign Crosshairs” — Jay Root, Texas Tribune

Rep. Jesse Jackson’s political future in question” — Paul Kane, Washington Post

 
Read what others are saying