Political Animal


April 21, 2012 11:15 AM It Helps To Be Likable

By Ed Kilgore

The biggest obstacle faced by those who are trying to build (for whatever reason) the case that Mitt Romney has already pretty much won the presidency is his consistently poor favorable-unfavorable ratings. Even in a recent poll where he was running even with the president—last week’s CBS/NYT survey—his favorability rating was underwater.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight took a long look this week at the relationship of favorability and election outcomes in the past. And the fairly clear answer from his data is that Mitt’s poor standing isn’t necessarily a sign of doom this far out, but if it persists late into the campaign he’s got a real problem.

Overall…early-stage favorability ratings have had a mixed track record as a predictor of election outcomes. The candidate with the better net-favorable rating in the early-going won the election in 1976, 1980, 1984, 1996, and 2008. But Mr. Clinton won the election in 1992, despite making a poor first impression on voters. On the flip side, Michael Dukakis had very promising favorability numbers early in the 1988 cycle, but they deteriorated over the course of the election cycle and he took a clear defeat. (I’m not sure where you’d classify the 2000 election because of the split between the popular vote and the Electoral College, or 2004 since George W. Bush and John Kerry had essentially the same net favorability rating in the early going.)…
If we look at favorability ratings in the late stages of a presidential race, however — as measured by an average of New York Times/CBS News polls conducted from September of the election year until the election date — we find a much stronger relationship. Although there is not data on this for 1976, the candidate with the stronger net-favorable rating in the late stages has won every election since 1980, and there has been an almost-perfect correspondence between the margin of the favorability gap and his margin of victory or defeat in the popular vote.

Mitt’s favorable/unfavorable ratios actually are improving right now, for the fairly obvious reason that conservatives aren’t hearing negative messages about him from his primary rivals. This will continue to give him a modest life, but to get and keep his numbers in a positive range, he’s eventually going to have to start showing some personal appeal to people outside the universe of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

You don’t have to be likable to become president, as Richard Nixon proved for all time. But it really does help, and we will soon be watching—with interest, and perhaps amusement—Team Mitt’s efforts to boost his regular-guy credentials, hard as that will be.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Danp on April 21, 2012 11:37 AM:

    Romney's problem is not that he comes across as stiff and elite, but "just wait until people get to know him better." His problem is that he's a well known phony, and that ain't gonna get any better. Every time he refuses to answer a question, or gets quoted as saying he's not going to get into details on issues like what departments to eliminate, he becomes less likable. Forget the polls. People do lie to pollsters.

  • liam foote on April 21, 2012 1:08 PM:

    Bottom line is that people just don't like Mr. Romney very much and, in fact, they like him less as they get to know him better, evident in Massachusetts as his approval rating fell from 66%-34% in Nov'03 to a nearly transposed 35%-64% in Nov'06.

    Watching him trying to connect with regular people can be almost painful, as was the case at a picnic in PA when in trying to make small talk he suggested that his hosts had not actually baked the served cookies, but had probably bought them from "a bakery like a 7-11"

    People hardly need to be reminded that any cookies served in the Romney household were freshly baked by the domestic staff.

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on April 21, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Don't know why Obama doesn't have everyone out there defining Romney right now.

  • Anonymous on April 21, 2012 1:52 PM:

    @Mitt's Magic Underpants: That is what Democrats do - nothing. Their ineffectualness is a tragedy for the country.

    Obama's campaign ought to be out there defining him unmercifully as:
    - a bald-faced liar (in those words)
    - a heartless vulture capitalist
    - Thurston Howell III
    - a phony trying to fool people he's comfortable around people
    - a flip-flopping asshole

    There is no time to waste on this. What's going to happen? The Republican message machine is going to absolutely blitzkrieg the Democrats, and they aren't going to know what hit them. All you'll hear is whimpering from Democrats, pundits, and bloggers about the mendacity. The average American won't hear any of the whimpering.

    What's coming is a disaster for the country. It could be stopped, but it won't. Because Democrats are spineless and stupid.

  • RIChris on April 22, 2012 5:10 PM:

    What's to like about this vid.


  • manapp99 on April 22, 2012 5:37 PM:

    Obama would love to have more to run on than just his "likeablility" but as a previous Sec of defense once said..sort of....You go to war with what you have and not what you wish you had.

  • sub on April 22, 2012 6:03 PM:

    ok, so what's important to the lemmings out there (and most of the folks commenting on this column) is that they "like" their presidential candidate, that they think he's a "cool" guy. in other words, all these lemmings want to look up to the popular kid in school, in the hopes that he'll look back for an instant, even though, in truth, he couldn't care less about anyone of them. in that case, you have your man; barack obama. uber narcissist, faux dictator, political hachet man and fiscal imbecile. well done.

  • Carolyn Clincy on April 22, 2012 6:06 PM:

    I think Mitt Romney is as good as anyone else for President. he grew up in a different culture than some of us. He just has that CEO presidential swag...Go Mitt Romney

  • Anonymous on April 22, 2012 6:46 PM:

    This election is like the movie "Alien vs Predator" (you can figure out which is which ;) ).

    No matter who wins, we lose. I'm voting GOP diownticket but 3rd party for president.

  • Thomas Paine on April 22, 2012 6:54 PM:

    Wow, only a few posts and we already have the Haters and the Troll ("third party" DNC meme). Congrats.

  • CCPony on April 22, 2012 7:47 PM:

    Another silly article. It helps to be likable? How about likable and incompetent. Does THAT help?

  • Doug Schexnayder, PhD (ret) on April 22, 2012 9:24 PM:

    That like crutch will not help the POTUS correct the economy or fill a gas tank, give you a job or lower the 16 trillion of debt...many many folks deemed likable were serial killers and untrustworthy people.

    The media can only change so many of BHO's diapers and that point has passed. Its the 3+ years of the toxic results of policies.

    We are not all the children and teens Obama prefers to make lofty speeches to these days.

  • John Gjertsen on April 22, 2012 9:46 PM:

    News Flash: Team Romney is going to have to start showing some personal appeal even to those *within* the universe of Republicans. Every Ron Paul supporter I know finds the thought of him rather odious, and I for one need am going to need a lot of persuasion to vote for him over writing in the good doctor!

  • yuwei on April 23, 2012 12:00 AM:

    The opposite of not liking African Americans is being Racist. Pick your choice.

  • Matt in Chicago on April 23, 2012 12:18 AM:

    I couldn't agree more, all of those people out of work or struggling to make ends meat are definitely going to vote for Obama because they like him more than another candidate... I'm sure that they will ignore Mr. Likable's record handling the economy and vote for him because they believe that really liking the President is much better than having a job. And if they don't, it's probably because they are racists.

  • George DeMarse on June 07, 2012 9:38 AM:

    Romney does not have to be likable, just competent? Competent at what, vulture capitalism? That he did seem to be pretty good at--hardly reassuring in a President. His record as governor of Massachusetts is so so--not particularly good at job creation.
    Most Americans don't want to listen to a blow hard ex CEO worth 250 million dollars--from a privileged background--telling them to work till they drop, that they too can be "Bill Gates," that they must save for their own retirement by gum, they can get their own healthcare don't cha know -all in the name of deficit reduction. I've got mine!
    That's Romney's bottom line--the old repackaging of failed trickle down economics.
    Romney can't do anymore for the economy than Obama--and he knows it. And people don't like him to boot.