By David Hill - 03/22/11 11:47 PM EDT
One of the best things about being a pollster is the process of discovery — figuring out how politics and elections work. Over time, I’ve discovered five questions that predict whether an officeholder is likely to be reelected. Most voters must answer yes to at least four of these five queries for an incumbent to be viable. Right now, America is saying no to these questions about Obama.
Question 1: Is the candidate thought to be likable? Likability is the single most essential trait for a candidate seeking reelection, but perhaps the hardest to define and measure. Likability is not respect. You can respect someone you don’t like. And vice-versa. Nor is likability related to affection. We love people we don’t really like. The likability that candidates need is closer to friend-like mutual respect. Voters like candidates who like them and are like them. Bill Clinton was likable for many, though most didn’t trust or admire him. They sensed that he liked others and was someone who’d be comfortable to spend time with. Trying to measure this quality, some pollsters ask whether you’d like to have a beer with a candidate. I come at this differently, asking, “If the candidate came into your modest home for a meal, would you both feel comfortable?” Would he approve of your food? Would he sit comfortably on your lumpy couch, overlooking the stained cushions? Would relaxed conversation, even conviviality, follow dessert?
Question 2: Does the candidate have solid support from his or her “base” voters? I evaluate this matter broadly. Your base might be partisan, ideological, geographic or demographic. Any way I look at this, I must say that Obama has mixed base support. I hear too many of his 2008 voters pledging to defect this time. And for goodness’ sake, there’s far too much speculation of Democrats taking him on for the nomination.
Question 3: Does the candidate have noteworthy and noticed accomplishments? In viability polls, I ask about the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an incumbent. If at least 15 to 20 percent mention specific accomplishments or substantive achievements, the candidate’s prospects for reelection are good. Obama’s only noteworthy achievement worth mentioning is the healthcare makeover, and half of those who would mention it are outraged by it. No, Obama won’t be reelected on accomplishments.
Question 4: Do voters feel they have personally encountered the candidate? Voters need to feel they have a personal, one-to-one relationship with the candidate. Did he touch them walking along a rope line? Did he come to their city? Did he send them an email or leave a message on their answering machine? Does he come into their homes via television often enough that he seems familiar, ever-present? In general, Obama has not been a president who gets out and about much. No.
Question 5: Do voters feel they are better off than they were four years ago? This oft-asked benchmark can strike some as a harsh question, even unfair. Of course people won’t say they are better off than four years ago. The biggest global downturn since the Great Depression is lingering. Is that really all Obama’s fault? Perhaps not, but it’s his problem if people don’t see things at least getting better because of his leadership. Right now, it’s a no.
So that’s five questions that few Americans can answer with a resounding yes when it comes to Obama. He’s simply not very viable for reelection.
David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.