Long ago, when I competed in pageants (and I think I’ve referenced this before), a coach told me shrewdly, “You don’t necessarily have to impress the judges. You just have to make them like you.” It’s sad, but true — and as sad and as true when applied to politics as to pageants. (Electoral politics, after all, has a kind of pageantry all its own.) If a judge likes a candidate, he’ll overlook a halting response to an interview question, a slight trip on the stage, an imperfectly fitted dress. Similarly, if voters like a politician, they’ll overlook unimpressive speeches, poor policies, blatant politicization of even the least political elements of our culture. The reverse is also true. If a judge dislikes a candidate, he won’t be impressed with clean execution in competition. If anything, a flawless performance will make him like her less, perceive her as “too perfect” and somehow not “all-American.” If voters dislike a politician, they won’t hand him an election on the basis of an impressive record and impeccable campaign trail performance.
The likability factor just might be Barack Obama’s trump card. Today offers two signs that Obama is as likable as ever.
Firstly, Obama’s approval rating ticked up a point in March, according to Gallup.
President Obama’s average monthly job approval rating has been inching up since last fall, rising from 41% in October to 45% in January, and reaching 46% in March. As his approval rating has expanded, and despite the variety of issues that have emerged at different times during his presidency, most of the demographic patterns of support for Obama seen at the outset of his presidency remain fixed. Groups that are above average in support for the president have stayed at roughly the same level above his overall approval rating from month to month, and those below average have also stayed roughly the same distance below his overall rating.
Secondly, a new poll by Global Strategy Group for Third Way shows that swing independents in 12 key states consider themselves closer ideologically to Mitt Romney than Obama — but still like Obama better. Politico reports:
Obama won 57 percent of this group in 2008. In this poll, which took place in mid-March, he led Romney 44 percent to 38 percent.
Yet when asked to assign a number on a scale of one to nine (one being liberal, nine being conservative and five being moderate), the swing independents put themselves at an average of 5.2 — slightly right of center — ranking Romney at 6.1 and Obama at 3.9.
“There’s definitely some good news for Obama. It’s not shocking to any of us that he’s very likable … Romney’s ideology is much closer to where they see themselves, but the likability factor isn’t there for him,” said Lanae Erickson, the deputy director of Third Way’s social policy and politics program, who has written a 12-page memo on the results.
It’s a bit of a mystery as to why Barack Obama appeals so strongly to so many voters on a personal level. He’s a Harvard-educated, Chicago-honed, aloof politician. He’s not so different in those respects than the Harvard-educated, Boston-honed, aloof Mitt Romney.
It’s hard to gauge how politicians acquire fixed descriptors. The “likable” Obama and the “distant” Mitt Romney are caricatures of both men. Obama is often condescending and insulting, Romney often self-deprecating and awkwardly endearing. The key, I think, is for conservatives and Republicans to stop disparaging Mitt Romney as unable to connect with the average American. He’s far above average in every respect, it’s true — but he has a respect for hardworking Americans that Obama often seems to lack and he has far more leadership experience in both the private and public sector than Barack Obama did when he became president. At this point, we have to be willing to say it: We like Mitt Romney.