Voters prefer Mitt Romney on economic issues but Obama leads in likability

A smattering of new polls shows an important divide developing: Voters like Mitt Romney on the economy but not much else. Meanwhile, they like President Obama on everything else but not nearly as much on the economy. 

So far, polls are showing a consistent, compelling divide between President Obama and the likely Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R). Romney often runs stronger than Obama on the question of who can better handle the economy, yet Obama’s favorability rating is usually higher — sometimes dramatically higher. 

In other words, they like Obama leading the country, Romney running it.

The evidence is ample. 

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In a Fox News poll released last week, Obama scored higher on four of five character traits, besting Romney on trust, smarts, honesty and optimism. Meanwhile, Romney only led on one question, but it was a huge one — “which candidate do you think has the best experience to fix the economy?” In this case, Romney’s strength on the economy was enough to give him a 46-44 percent overall lead, despite Obama’s greater personal appeal.

Meanwhile, a CNN poll released Monday revealed a similar pattern, although with less sanguine overall results for Romney. Obama scored higher than his GOP rival on 13 personal attributes, but the divide was most pronounced on likability vs. the economy. Obama held a 29-point advantage on likability, but that fell to a statistically meaningless 2-point lead on the economy. 

In other words, Obama was strongest on personal appeal and weakest on the economy, while Romney was the inverse.

Finally, an ABC survey released Monday also showed a huge likability gap between Obama and Romney. The president sported a +26 percent rating, while Romney was underwater at -12 percent. And when asked which of the two was more likable, 64 percent said Obama, while only 26 percent said Romney. To add insult to injury, only 11 percent of Republicans thought Romney was more likable, and he trailed Obama in likability among independents by 31 percent.

Yet despite this massive gap, Romney was still viewed as stronger on the economy, 47 percent to 43. Clearly, the contrast between perceived likability and perceived competence on the economy will be one of the defining narratives of this election and, as befits any good drama, there are mixed thoughts about it.

Pollster and global CEO of StrategyOne Steve Lombardo says, “If this election is about issues, as I suspect it will be, it is far better for Romney to be winning on those rather than personality characteristics.”

Having said that, Lombardo warns that Romney can’t afford too large a likability gap or he’ll certainly lose, but if he can maintain parity or keep a close deficit, “then he will be the next president.” 

The big question, though, is how close Romney has to be, and whether a 28 percent gap is close enough. After all, that’s the current likability divide, according to the ABC poll, and the pollster conducting the survey, Gary Langer, notes that Romney is the first likely nominee to have negative favorable ratings in the past 28 years.

That’s a very tall mountain to climb, but bleak economies have a way of boosting otherwise weak candidates up those hills. 

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is confident that the economy will produce the winner, not perceptions of likability.

“Everybody cites ‘I like Ike,’ but that’s not why Eisenhower won,” he notes. “Does anybody think Nixon was more likable than Hubert Humphrey? Does anybody think Jimmy Carter was a better drinking buddy than Gerald Ford?”

Personal attributes, he argues, only become critical when the economy isn’t the major issue, but 2012 looks very much like an economy year.

“If people believe things are getting better and the next four years will be more prosperous than the last four, then Obama will be reelected. But if the storm clouds start gathering again, voters will switch horses — even a horse that will never be ‘My Friend Flicka.’ ”

Yet there remains the very real possibility that Obama’s personal popularity is helping buffer him from the full electoral force of a dismal economy.

By huge margins, voters are gloomy about the country’s direction, but the incumbent still holds a small 3 percent lead over Romney in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Obama also sports a roughly even approval number. That’s hardly an inspiring performance, but his superior personal appeal seems to be a factor in maintaining it.