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Does Likeability Matter?

It sure helps, but historically it matters less than you think.

4:45 PM, Sep 26, 2012 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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"Romney's High Unfavorable Rating Hampers Message on Economy" ran the headline at Bloomberg Businessweek. "Half of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Romney—a September high for a presidential challenger in the last three decades," reports Julie Hirschfeld-Davis. "Forty-nine percent of likely voters consider the former Massachusetts governor out of touch, compared with 40 percent who say that of Obama, in the latest Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 21-24." This is obviously not good news for the Romney camp, and it's safe to assume the related issue of personal likeability is not a Romney strength either. But questions of likeability should be kept in perspective.

Romney up

Back in June, Hoover Institution senior fellow and political science professor Morris Fiorina publicized the work of the American National Election Studies which, among other things, has gauged voters' views on a candidate's experience and likeability since 1952. "Other things being equal, it is no doubt better for a candidate to be liked than disliked," wrote Fiorina in the June 7 edition of the New York Times. "[B]ut when other things are not equal, historical data suggest that a candidate's likeability is a relatively minor factor in deciding modern presidential elections."

In retrospect, while Vice President Al Gore is sometimes seen as having lost the 2000 election because he wasn't likeable enough, the ANES poll reveals that at the time, he was more liked than Bush. In 1980, Carter had a higher personal favorability rating than Reagan. Nixon was better liked than Kennedy in 1960. "In 1952," says Fiorina, "the public rated Adlai Stevenson slightly higher than Dwight Eisenhower on the personal dimension." And therein lies the distinction: Personal likeability matters less, as shown above. Experience, however, is something entirely different.

Eisenhower was viewed as the strong leader who won the war in Europe.... In personal terms Bill Clinton in 1996 was the lowest rated candidate—Democrat or Republican—in the 13 elections. Contrary to popular commentary he was not a "Teflon president"—his checkered personal history was reflected in low personal ratings. But he was the opposite of Carter: his job performance ratings stayed high even while his personal ratings tanked. In 1980 citizens decided to vote out a personally admired president in favor of a risky alternative. In 1996 they opted to retain a president they viewed as personally sleazy but doing a good job. In each case voters put performance and positions above personal qualities.

At a Hoover colloquium on Monday, I asked Fiorina about this dip in personal ratings for Clinton since the plummet occurred prior to the Lewinsky affair. "Oh, it got even worse for Clinton," he said. Regarding the issue of "high personal moral and ethical standards," the former president plunged by 20 percentage points after the scandal. (Of course reelection was no longer at issue, and his job rating remained high.)

So if Romney's personals are low, it isn't necessarily the end of the world. But how voters perceive the governor's experience versus Obama's performance these last four years will be crucial—nevermind what you wear to bed, tell us specifically what you will do.

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