Last week was a pretty good one for Mitt Romney. He moved ahead of Rick Santorum in the polls in Wisconsin. His lead in national polls of Republicans increased as well. And he continued to get prominent endorsements from star conservatives like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, indicating a party moving in his direction. But despite all this encouraging news, there was a cloud on Romney’s horizon: his terrible approval ratings.
How terrible? According to a new ABC News-Washington Post survey, only 34 percent of Americans view Romney favorably (“the lowest for any leading presidential candidate in ABC/Post polls in primary seasons since 1984”). And 50 percent of Americans rate Romney unfavorably—that’s higher than any unfavorability score Obama has received ever.
Needless to say, this is not what you want to hear when you’re still busy courting your party’s most extremist voters in an effort to nail down the nomination. In fact, Romney’s record-low ratings probably have a lot to do with this year’s extended primary. John McCain, for example, was doing much better at this point in 2008, with a 54-40 approval/disapproval rating—but he had already won the nomination. According to ABC/Post, Romney’s unfavorability score has been exceeded “by only one top candidate in 28 years, Hillary Clinton in 2008.” It’s no accident that the past candidate who actually exceeds Romney’s unfavorable is Clinton, who was also still in a highly competitive nomination contest at the end of March.
A big part of Romney’s problem, as ABC’s Gary Langer explains in his analysis of the new poll, is that “core Republican voters” don’t much like him—in sharp contrast to Obama, whose troubles with the Democratic base seem to be over:
Romney’s seen favorably by 62 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of conservatives overall, including 54 percent of strong conservatives. Obama fares much better on the other side of the political spectrum – 86 percent favorable among Democrats, 75 percent among liberals.
The president peaks at 91 percent favorability among liberal Democrats, vs. Romney’s 66 percent among conservative Republicans. These are like-sized groups: Liberal Democrats account for 16 percent of all adults in this poll, conservative Republicans for 18 percent.
Intensity of sentiment is an even sharper point of differentiation. Sixty-one percent of Democrats and half of liberals see Obama “strongly” favorably, the most in nearly a year. Strongly favorable ratings of Romney dive to 15 and 13 percent among Republicans and conservatives.
But Romney’s unfavorability among core Republicans probably won’t cost him that much. There’s plenty of reason to figure Mitt’s most conservative detractors will ultimately support him in the general election, especially against an opponent they dislike far more than Democrats disliked John McCain in 2008.A Public Policy Polling survey a bit earlier in March that showed Romney with an even more dismal approval-disapproval ratio (33-58) also indicated his most avid conservative detractors would back him strongly in the general election. According to PPP, Romney’s approval ratio among “very conservative” voters was 43/48. Yet the same voters preferred him to Obama 76/16. Meanwhile, Obama’s 81/11 approval ratio among “very liberal” voters is almost identical to his support from them against Romney (81/15). In other words, Romney has a hidden cushion of support.
That cushion doesn’t extend, however, to moderate and independent voters. Romney’s poor approval ratios among independents (35-52) and self-identified moderates (35-48) has to be troubling, especially when you consider how much time he will still have to spend articulating very conservative policy positions in the next few months. Aside from the extended GOP primary season, the Republican convention is relatively late this year (August 27-30), and the general election campaign will not fully get underway until after the Democrats complete their convention on September 6. Particularly after his campaign’s “Etch-a-Sketch” gaffe, Team Romney will have to execute any pivot from a primary to a general election message slowly and carefully.
Beyond all these considerations, the deeper fear in RomneyLand must be that their candidate is just not terribly likable once voters get to know him. In early 2008, when he was last running for president, his approval/disapproval ratings were similarly poor (28/43 in NBC/WSJ poll; 34/46 in ABC/WaPo poll; 32/42 in USAT/Gallup poll). Given his famous difficulty in connecting with average voters, and his tendency to commit regular gaffes drawing attention to his wealth and unusual background, perhaps he has the same affliction as his recent rival Newt Gingrich, who for nearly two decades has followed a pattern of momentary popularity (at least among Republicans) followed by a return to gravity.
It’s worth noting that even after his pounding by Romney during the primaries, and his many years of rubbing voters the wrong way, Gingrich’s approval ratio in the most recent PPP poll (28-61) is not that much worse than Romney’s. If people barely like you more than Newt Gingrich, that’s probably a sign to start worrying.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.