In April, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found an even larger gap, with 64 percent of those surveyed describing Obama as the friendlier, more likable candidate, and only 26 percent saying that about Romney.
“We’re not going to win a personality contest. It’s not an election for class president. It’s who can best solve the problems of the country,” said Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse. “Likability isn’t fixing the economy or helping the middle class make ends meet.”
In part, the disparity reflects a natural reserve, even an awkwardness on Romney’s part. It also reveals a sensitivity to the fact that there are upsides and downsides politically to defining himself through his biography — his Mormon faith, his spectacularly successful business career, his wealth and his stint as the governor of a liberal state.
Asked last week by NBC News’s Brian Williams whether he is “unknowable to us,” Romney insisted that he is trying and still has opportunities to introduce himself.
“You know, I’ve been on ‘The Tonight Show’ and ‘Letterman’ and ‘The View,’ and I do some of those things to get better known,” he said in the interview that was broadcast Wednesday. “But at the same time, most folks won’t really get to see me until the debates and will get a better sense of the character that I have.”
Romney also seemed to acknowledge that he is not exactly a natural when it comes to selling the inner Mitt. “My wife and my sons and daughters-in-law, they’re doing the best job they can to get the real story about who I am in public view,” he said.
In every presidential election for the past two decades, the candidate viewed as more likable was the one who won.
Voters look at the ballot with the expectation that they are going to have “a pretty intimate relationship with the president,” said Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod. “In addition to everything else, they know they are going to see a lot of him.”
But Axelrod added: “Likability is a hard thing to measure.” Indeed, Obama himself is no one’s idea of a glad-hander.
What makes people warm up to a candidate, Axelrod said, is a sense that he is “someone who is accessible to me, someone who understands me, someone I can relate to.”
Those perceived qualities about the president, strategists on both sides say, have helped keep the race close, despite Americans’ disappointment with how the economy has performed under Obama.
“Likability is keeping Obama in the game at this point,” said Mark McKinnon, a top strategist for George W. Bush, who in his 2004 presidential reelection bid was famously deemed in one poll to be the candidate with whom undecided voters would rather have a beer (an irony, for a teetotaling president).