Why Do Americans Like President Obama More than Mitt Romney?

The “Likeability Gap” between Romney and Obama is a serious drag on the Republican candidate’s chances to win the presidency.

Or is it?

“We’re not going to win a personality contest. It’s not an election for class president. It’s who can best solve the problems of the country,” said Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse. “Likability isn’t fixing the economy or helping the middle class make ends meet.”


Well said, and true — as far as it goes. But the vote for president has been shown to be the most personal of all ballots cast by the voter. And “likeability” is tied up in how we view ourselves as much as how we see the candidate before us.

The electoral canard about voting for the guy we’d like to sit down and have a beer with is shorthand for projecting our own personality traits on the candidate and measuring how he relates to our self-image. Political pros have their own ideas:

Voters look at the ballot with the expectation that they are going to have “a pretty intimate relationship with the president,” said Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod. “In addition to everything else, they know they are going to see a lot of him.”

But Axelrod added: “Likability is a hard thing to measure.” Indeed, Obama himself is no one’s idea of a glad-hander.

What makes people warm up to a candidate, Axelrod said, is a sense that he is “someone who is accessible to me, someone who understands me, someone I can relate to.”

Those perceived qualities about the president, strategists on both sides say, have helped keep the race close, despite Americans’ disappointment with how the economy has performed under Obama.

“Likability is keeping Obama in the game at this point,” said Mark McKinnon, a top strategist for George W. Bush, who in his 2004 presidential reelection bid was famously deemed in one poll to be the candidate with whom undecided voters would rather have a beer (an irony, for a teetotaling president).

“But Romney has a lot of potential to improve his likability numbers, particularly during the convention,” McKinnon added. “Romney hasn’t really revealed much of his personal story or his personality, so he’s got a lot more potential to grow.”


It appears that we measure likeability, in some respects, by deciding whether or not we want to welcome the candidate into our living rooms every night for the next four years. Is that more important than where the candidate stands on the issues of the day? Or whether his ideology is compatible with ours?

Mitt Romney may find the answer to those questions after the convention.


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