Throughout a very tumultuous first three years in office, one thing has remained consistent for President Obama: people like him personally.
Call it the likability gap. It’s a real thing and a potential problem for Romney as he seeks to make his case against President Obama. If people are inclined to give the incumbent the benefit out of the doubt, how do you convince them that he needs to be fired?
In a campaign appearance in the swing state of North Carolina on Wednesday, Romney seemed to be testing out a possible line of attack aimed at dealing with the likability gap.
“Even if you like Barack Obama, we can’t afford Barack Obama,” Romney said. “It’s time to get someone that will get this economy going and put the American people back to work with good jobs and rising income.”
What Romney is, smartly, trying to do is take likability off the table. He is granting that Obama is likeable in hopes of moving the conversation away from one centered on who people like more to one centered on who people think can do a better job running the country.
In essence, turn the race from a vote for prom king into one for school president. (And, yes, everything you need to know about politics you learned in high school.)
It’s a strategy that’s worked before. Take the 2004 South Dakota Senate race between Sen. Tom Daschle (D) and former Rep. John Thune (R).
Daschle, who had held the Senate seat since 1986, was the most beloved (or at least be-liked) politician in the state. Knowing that, Thune and his campaign didn’t try to make the race about personalities. Instead of arguing that Daschle was a bad guy, Thune made the case that Daschle was a good guy with the wrong priorities for the state. That, at the end of the day, everyone liked Daschle but that Daschle had lost touch with the perspective of average South Dakotans.
It worked. Daschle remained quite personally popular throughout the race — and lost. Likability wasn’t enough.
That’s the model Romney is hoping to follow in 2012. And, polling suggests that if he can turn the conversation from “who do you like more”to “who do you trust to fix the economy”, he can win.
A Post-ABC poll conducted earlier this month showed just 44 percent approve of President Obama’s handling of the economy while 54 percent disapprove. And, despite the fact that Romney trailed Obama by eight points in the horse race question, he took 47 percent to 43 percent for the incumbent when people were asked who people trusted to do a better job on the economy.
Of course, Romney’s attempt to neutralize the likability gap won’t happen in a vacuum. Obama and his campaign team will seek to leverage the fact that he remains personally popular to help them make the case that he has the right priorities for the country going forward while Romney lacks them. It’s a “you know me, you like me” argument that, Obama strategists hope, Romney won’t be able to make.
Presidential elections tend to be about personalities and values more than they are about any specific issues. That reality is why the likability gap matters and why Romney needs to find a way to either bridge it or take it off the table before spring turns to summer and summer turns to fall.