Two stark facts about presidents and the likability factor: In every presidential election since at least 1984, the candidate viewed as more likable won. Indeed, if current numbers hold, Mitt Romney would be the least popular person elected in that time.
At this stage in the campaign, according to data assembled by The Post’s polling team, voters had a more positive view of Walter Mondale in 1984 (47 percent viewed him favorably), Michael Dukakis in 1988 (50 percent favorable), George H.W. Bush in 1992 (53 percent favorable), and Bob Dole in 1996 (50 percent favorable) than they do of Romney.
I could go on, but you get the point — and the implication.
Indeed, Romney’s numbers are strikingly more dismal. The latest Post-ABC News poll has the share of voters viewing Romney favorably at a scant 40 percent. More than half, 51 percent, view him unfavorably, a gap that dwarfs that of other past candidates.
Meanwhile, on the related measure of which candidate seems more friendly and likable, President Obama trounced Romney 61 percent to 27 percent among registered voters, with margins slightly larger in tossup states and among independents. Even 33 percent of Republicans found Obama more likable.
You can argue that the want-to-have-a-beer-with-the-guy test is a silly metric with which to judge prospective presidents. Companies don’t choose CEOs on the basis of a popularity contest. Candidates’ experience and policy positions surely matter more than their social skills or, more precisely, their capacity to project those skills on television.
That’s true, but a president’s relationship with the American people is strangely intimate. We have to live with him for four years, hear his voice in our living rooms, put up with his mannerisms. At the least, voters need to find him tolerable.
Romney’s advisers, not surprisingly, play down this problem. In a round of recent interviews, Romney himself resorted to the Popeye defense: “I am who I am,” he told Politico three times in a 30-minute interview, adding, “I know there are some people who do a very good job acting and pretend they’re something they’re not.” This might be a more persuasive argument if voters’ questions about Romney’s authenticity weren’t part of his likability problem.
Indeed, the behavior of the Romney campaign belies its insouciant dismissal of the likability factor; hence Romney flipping pancakes on “Fox News Sunday,” the Romney boys out in force describing life at Chez Romney, Ann Romney’s convention speech.
The convention presents an essential opportunity for Romney to narrow the likability gap. “On the personality race, we’re getting killed,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “So part of the goal this week is to humanize Mitt Romney.”
Some Republicans argue that voters are only now beginning to tune into the race. “You can’t really properly introduce yourself in the middle of a Republican primary,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said here at a lunch sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
The convention, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said at a Washington Post-Bloomberg News breakfast, “will be the start of not reintroducing, but introducing, the real Mitt Romney to folks who have only seen at this point an amazing array of negative campaign ads” from the Obama campaign and its allies.
This argument, though, is hard to square with the relative handful of undecided voters — just 7 percent in the Post-ABC poll — and the self-reported stickiness of those who have already chosen, with only 6 percent of Obama and Romney supporters saying there is a good chance they might change their minds.
Portman argued that Romney’s challenge (changing voters’ image of himself) is less daunting than Obama’s (changing voters’ perceptions of the economy). “I do think likability is important,” he said. “But I think people will have learned between 2008 and now that liking somebody or celebrity status or ‘Wow, he’s cool’ doesn’t fix the economy. And I think our argument this year is the far easier argument to make, which is that he didn’t fix it; we will.”
Romney’s challenge with voters may be similar to that of Ronald Reagan in 1980, except that Romney needs to cross a threshold of minimum likability rather than that of competence. Portman and Graham both set the bar at Romney proving himself “acceptable” to voters. “It’s almost an acceptability standard,” Portman said, rather than persuading voters to “swoon” for him, as they did for Obama in 2008.
In other words, Romney doesn’t have to make himself likable. Just likable enough.