Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Obama and the Likability Factor

Obama and the Likability Factor

Photograph via

The Mitt Romney Campaign must be incredibly frustrated. Imagine the following scenario in a presidential election:

  • During the summer of election year, the incumbent constantly battles to keep his approval rating in the high 40s. (Lyndon Johnson is the only president since 1945—when Gallup started tracking the statistic—to win re-election with an approval rating below 50.)
  • Unemployment has been over eight percent for the incumbent’s entire term. This illuminating column tells us that only one president since FDR has been elected with unemployment above 6 percent; when Reagan won in 1984, unemployment was 7.2.
  • In the election year itself, the rate hovers between 8.1 and 8.3 percent, with no trend in either direction.
  • The challenger’s base is desperate to vote out the incumbent.
  • The incumbent presides over unprecedented debt growth—now north of $16 trillion—including holding the bag when the debt eclipses GDP for the first time in U.S. history.
  • He has failed to resolve the partisanship he promised to fight—the reliable Economist tells us it’s worse than ever—and often blames an administration from four years ago for last month’s job report.
  • The challenger outraised the incumbent by nearly 50 percent (!) in the months following primary season.
  • The challenger had the unique opportunity for the vice-presidential bump in buzz, fundraising, and poll numbers.
  • Three months before the election, it was revealed that July national unemployment ticked up to 8.3 percent and rose in 44 states. Both stats cast doubt on an ongoing “recovery.” Even it remains so, the best it can be called is “slow recovery.”

Of course, you’ve by now realized we don’t have to imagine that scenario. It’s happening before our eyes. And yet, despite all of these indicators pointing toward an inevitable win for the challenger, he’s still trailing the polls by an increasing margin. Indeed, smart money is still on the incumbent to win.

My goodness, how frustrated Republicans must be.

Many must wonder how President Obama is still the odds-on favorite. Electoral novices might point to his incumbency advantage, citing the last two presidents’ re-elections, but historically, the incumbency, though advantageous, does not account for a major edge. Only 25 presidents have been re-elected, and several of those—TR, Coolidge, Truman, and LBJ—were not elected in their own right the first time around. In other words, fewer than half of all full-termed presidents have been re-elected. (To be fair, a handful of those that were not re-elected—namely William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Garfield, Harding, and Kennedy—had died before getting the chance to run again.) In fact, only once before this current stretch did two consecutive presidents serve eight years each; to find the last time, one would have to go back to the 1820s and the Virginia Dynasty of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

No, incumbency is not the reason for Obama’s lead. Acknowledging as much relegates the race to a couple of candidates going head-to-head. What is it about these candidates, then, that give the President this decisive advantage in polling despite all the negative indicators? The answer is unsurprising, but the evidence lies in the last few weeks.

From this pundit’s chair, we have just come out of the Summer of Romney and arrived in the Autumn of Obama. Over the summer, I wrote about Romney’s successes, which naturally coincided with Obama’s struggles. For example, my June “Mittmentum: Yes, He Can” column examined the erosion of Obama’s battleground leads, Romney’s rising favorability, Romney’s domination of the fundraising war, and how a stagnant economy naturally helped the challenger. My “Romney’s Rope-A-Dope” at July’s end displayed a graph charting Obama’s steady fall in the national polls mirrored by Romney’s ascension. I wrote how the President’s approval rating had peaked at 50 earlier in the year, but had since steadily fallen thanks to his unrelenting obsession with Romney’s private finances. Indeed, it was a great summer for Camp Romney.

But summer, as it so often does, turned to autumn. In one fell swoop of September, the Republican’s chances cratered. Two months of steady gains have been laid waste by two weeks of heavy losses.

Consider the following:

  • The President’s Real Clear Politics approval ratings, some of which had him in the 44 to 47 range over the summer, now chart him consistently around 50 and average out at 49.1.
  • The election’s national polls flirted with Romney during the Ryan-to-RNC fortnight, showing the two sides within a single point of each other in most polls during the second half of August. The day before the DNC, the RCP average was a microscopic 0.1 in favor of the President. Subsequent to the DNC, however, the President quickly built a lead of three-points and climbing. Of the last nine major national polls, he leads seven by between three and six points.
  • Meanwhile, the electoral math, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of polls, also reflected Romney’s momentum. On April 10, RCP forecasted the President with 280 electoral votes—enough for victory—with Romney 100 electoral votes behind and only 77 battleground electorals up for grabs. Romney steadily chiseled away to a more manageable 221 to 191 deficit by August 21. The coup was the mid-August stretch where the Ryan selection wrestled away Wisconsin from the Obama column, followed by Michigan’s desertion. But in September, Michigan turned blue again, bringing the President to 237—33 short of victory—with 110 electorals from 9 purple states still in play. In many scenarios, the President only needs two or three of those nine states for victory, while Romney needs a supermajority.
  • And insult to injury: in August, the President finally won a head-to-head fundraising battle with Governor Romney, eking out a $2 million victory.

All told, we see a clear pattern. Over the summer, Romney made up ground. Then, over the conventions and into September, he lost it. The reason? I told you it was unsurprising: Obama, by and large, is more likeable. (Not by everyone, Republicans, but by most. My goodness, I can feel your collective ire.)

I know, stop the presses, right? Here’s why it’s never been more important, though. People always pay more attention to elections in the fall than in the summer. The conventions were big news. They were the national news story, bigger than a hurricane striking New Orleans.

And what happened when people started paying more attention? They were reminded of what they liked about President Obama and what doesn’t feel right about Governor Romney. Remember that during the last stretch where people played close attention to politics—the Republican Primary—Romney had trouble connecting. He was seen as boring, stiff, and, well, unlikeable.

Of course—and this is important—the President’s advantage in likeability has little to do with the candidates’ policies or records. His ability to win this election probably won’t rest on such trivial things. Surely this is yet another part of the massive frustration Republicans feel toward this President. If he’s going to win, his greatest advantage—that is, where he’s strongest politically compared to Romney—is not his record. Rather, it’s his likability. His charm. His charisma. Even an ostensibly policy-centered polling question like, “Which candidate will be better for the middle class over the next four years?” is really asking, “Which of these guys do you think will be more likely to help you out?” and people will probably answer with the guy they like more. The President’s ability to convince people that he’s in it for them dwarfs Romney’s ability to do the same; the legitimacy of those claims is beside the point. For those who don’t buy Obama’s shtick, it must be maddening to watch others swoon for it.

In the end, let’s not forget how often we compare the skills of politicians to the skills of used car salesmen. As their reputations go, used car salesmen’s motivation is not to put you in the long-lasting car of your life. It’s to get you to buy the car. But first, they just need you to trust them long enough to sign that waiver and drive off the lot. Politicians, too, don’t prioritize the long-term fix of America. Instead, they just need to win the next election. But first, they need you to trust them long enough for you to vote for them. President Obama, regardless of these candidates’ records, policies, and ideologies, is the more effective salesman.

Kind of ironic for being the one with no business experience, isn’t it?