Facing deep likability gap vs. Obama, Romney makes case for competence

Mitt Romney faces a huge likability gap against President Obama — and that means he must turn the presidential election into a contest of policies, not personality.

Polls show Obama beating Romney by a 3-1 margin when voters are asked who is more likable, a devastating disadvantage given that U.S. presidential elections have often become personality contests.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both parlayed affability and other appealing personal qualities into political success, while George W. Bush’s capacity to exude a “regular guy” charm helped him win narrow victories against Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom were viewed by some as stiff and patrician. 

Those precedents give some Republicans pause for thought when it comes to Romney’s prospects. But they argue that if Romney can ensure the 2012 race comes down to a decision about picking the most competent leader for a country facing tough economic times, he can still prevail.

Romney “may never be able to close that gap [on likability],” according to GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.

“But if you asked me whether I would rather be trailing on the economy or trailing on likability — well, it’s not even a close choice,” he said. “And that’s where Romney is right now.”

“Let’s face it, the question is not Mitt versus Barack,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who predicted voters would throw Obama out of office because of his policies.

He defended Romney as “pleasant and bright” but also suggested that likability would be far from the be-all and end-all. “The question is: Do you want four more years of Barack Obama’s policies and philosophies?” he said.

Still, polls suggest that even when large numbers of Americans are uneasy with Obama’s policies, they still like the man. 

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Friday, Obama bested Romney by a yawning margin of 54 percent to 18 percent when people were asked whom they viewed as more “easygoing and likable.”

Also last week, a CNN/ORC poll found that, among adults nationwide, 56 percent thought of Obama as likable whereas only 27 percent felt the same way about Romney. A Quinnipiac University poll was more positive for Romney, indicating that 63 percent of Americans found him likable. But he was still left in the wake of Obama, whom 81 percent liked.

More broadly, a Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week found only 35 percent viewed Romney favorably, which the Post said made him the least popular party nominee since 1984.

Obama’s personal magnetism has long been a significant political asset. It played no small part in his vanquishing of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primaries, and his likability ratings remained resilient through the worst days of the Great Recession.

For Romney, likability has long been a troublesome concept. During his first tilt at the White House in 2008, it was no secret that his main Republican rivals, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, bonded over their shared enmity toward him. 

GOP strategists and politicians contend Romney’s personal ratings will begin to rise now that the primaries — which were characterized by negative ads and hot rhetoric on all sides — are all but over.

“The bottom line is that there’s always an intensity when you are running against your own party,” Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Hill. “It’s never fun. Inside party races are very difficult. I think now that he has the nomination, you’ll see a brand-new improved, very-likable, more-focused — in a different way — candidate.”

Romney’s wife, Ann, could help him close the gap with Obama.

GOP consultant Rick Wilson asserted that Ann Romney’s recent response to a Democratic strategist who said she had “never worked a day in her life” had “put the president’s entire team on defense for four solid days.” Wilson added that, more generally, “once people get to know the Romney family, they really like them.”

Mackowiak cited the interview that Mitt and Ann Romney conducted with Diane Sawyer of ABC News last week as a good example of how to give  voters a sense of Romney beyond policy positions and podium speeches.

He said he “thought the interview was helpful and positive. It is helpful for him to show a more personal side, to get Ann out there. My sense is that he does have a good story to tell.”

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) also emphasized that, from all appearances, Romney’s personal conduct is unimpeachable: “He’s the kind of person with the character that I’d love my son to grow up to be.” 

It may be difficult for Republicans to cut into Obama’s likability. Wilson said  the conventional wisdom that Obama was an appealing person had become embedded at the start of his presidency. 

“Republicans were afraid of him. He had very high poll numbers and they were terrified of being called racist. So they would say, ‘He’s a nice guy but…’ But Barack Obama has broken his promises and underperformed — and that is deadly in politics.”

Republicans are clearly concerned about the likability gap, and they hope it doesn’t turn out to be all that important. An election campaign that is more about employment and economics than charm and charisma would suit them just fine.

Dan Judy, a vice president at the Republican firm North Star Opinion Research, insisted Romney could beat Obama even if he were regarded as less likable.

“I don’t think likability is the most important thing,” he said. “I expect Mitt Romney’s numbers to come up a bit and Barack Obama’s numbers will come down a bit, but in the end it’s going to be about the issues. Lots of presidents haven’t been the most likable people in the world. Richard Nixon was elected twice.”

Additional reporting by Molly Hooper.