This year’s presidential election is proving to be a mystery. If you look at the polls, you find voters saying that the most important issue is the economy—by far. And at least up to the conventions, voters have thought that Mitt Romney would be better able than Barack Obama to handle the economy—by 53 to 42 percent in a Gallup poll right before the Republican convention. That would suggest that Romney should have been ahead in the polls by a comparable margin. But he has almost never been ahead in any polls, and now seems to be falling behind the President.
There are some obvious reasons why: Romney’s association with Bain Capital, which seems to be hurting him in the industrial Midwest, his identification with the rightwing Republican stands on abortion and immigration, and, perhaps, the ineptitude of his campaign. But in public opinion surveys, what has jumped out for months is the large advantage that Obama enjoys over Romney on questions related to character and personality.
In the same poll that Gallup found voters preferring Romney on the economy, it found that Obama enjoyed a 23 percentage-point edge on who is more “likeable,” a 16 point advantage in “who cares about the needs of people like you,” and a 12-point edge in who is more “honest and trustworthy.” Other polls show similar results. In four polls conducted from April 8 through September 9, The Washington Post and ABC found that voters by over two-to-one margins thought that Obama “seems the more friendly and likeable person.”
Civics teachers may wring their hands about it—all these voters who supposedly make up their minds based on imaginary beers with people they’ll never personally meet—but these kind of considerations can prove decisive. If the 2000 election had been decided entirely on specific policy grounds, Vice President Al Gore probably would have won fairly easily. But George W. Bush enjoyed a consistent edge on character questions. According to Gallup polls in October 2000, voters found Bush more likeable by 60 to 31 percent and more honest and trustworthy by 47 to 33 percent. In the 2004 election, Bush enjoyed a similar edge over challenger John Kerry. After the October 13 debate, CNN/Gallup found voters preferring Kerry on every measure except one: who was “more likeable.” Bush, not Kerry, went on to win the election.
Personal popularity isn’t based on whether a candidate would balance the budget or promise to bomb Iran, but that doesn’t mean it’s superficial. In voters’ minds, questions about character can relate to what a president would do, but not necessarily to what he would do about specific policies. In 2000 and 2004, voters preferred Bush because they trusted him to take their concerns into account when he had to decide what to do about a particular issue. They didn’t necessarily believe that Gore or Kerry would ignore them; but they didn’t know what these candidates would do. That was reflected, especially, in answers to questions about whether a candidate “cares about people like you,” and whether the candidate is “honest and trustworthy,” but also in answers to questions about who is the more “likeable.” Being more likeable is being more like them; and being more like-able. Voters found Gore and Kerry—in contrast to Bush—to be distant and to distant from them.
What about Romney? Certainly, his reputation as a cut-throat business consultant, which the Obama campaign has sought to reinforce, has convinced voters that he does not care about them. But Romney’s greatest disability lies elsewhere. The term voters most often use to describe him is “phony.” Last January, conservative Louis Woodhill, who writes a column for Forbes, discovered that when he googled “Mitt Romney is a phony,” he got 102,000 hits. And that was during the Republican primary.
The term “phony” is usually applied to persons who put on airs – who try to appear more important or of a higher social standing than they are. But with politicians, the term often works in reverse. It applies to wealthy or patrician politicians who try to appear to be average Joes or Janes. During the 1988 New Hampshire primary, George H.W. Bush tried to appear to be an everyday guy by driving an 18-wheeler around a truck stop parking lot. Campaigning during the New Hampshire primary, Romney claimed to have purchased his children’s Christmas presidents at Wal-Mart’s.
But voters don’t just perceive Romney as doing phony things, but as being a phony. He is seen as a person whose very identity—his gestures, his choice of vacation home, and his whole range of political positions—is determined by a desire to impress voters. He is how he appears; yet how he appears is not determined by inner conviction, but by a desire to impress and to ingratiate.
Many voters have gotten this impression from Romney’s own political history. When he ran for Senate in 1994, he was pro-choice, in favor of gay rights (gay marriage was not yet on the table) and of mandated national health insurance, and skeptical about overseas intervention. Seven years ago, when he began running for president, he jettisoned these convictions for a diametrically opposite set of beliefs. As he began changing his views, there is no record of a Road to Damascus experience in his biography. Instead, what appears to have motivated him was a desire to impress Republican primary voters.
Politicians can often be two-faced, and can voice opinions they don’t really believe in. No one believes that Barack Obama opposed gay marriage until this May when he suddenly decided to support it. Privately, we assume, he supported it all along. And for all we know, Mitt Romney might privately tell his wife Anne that he still backs a women’s right to choose. But that is not what appears to have happened. Instead, Romney appears to be a man who has no private self—who has actually embraced the views that he initially adopted for purely opportunistic reasons.
And yet, that doesn’t mean he entirely believes these positions. If Romney’s political belief is generated by a desire to impress and ingratiate, one can imagine him, faced with a public alienated from conservative Republican positions, changing back to what he believed in 1994. Indeed, with his polls numbers stagnant, Romney recently abandoned his promise to fully repeal Obamacare. Of course, challenged by National Review, he subsequently denied he did.
Voters who don’t know Romney’s political life story can still pick up subliminal cues of Romney’s bad faith. Last May, James Lipton, a writer, actor, and director who is the host of Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, did a video trying to explain why Romney did not “come across as authentic.” Lipton noted that Romney’s laugh was “mirthless” and “doesn’t come across as genuine.” Lipton advised viewers to freeze a frame of Romney’s face when he was laughing and to put their hand over the lower half of Romney’s face. They would discover that while Romney mouth was expressing the sound of laughter, but that his eyes displayed “no pleasure.”
This perception that Romney is not genuine is at heart of his political difficulties. It is why voters don’t trust him. At the convention, Romney’s handlers tried to humanize him by making the case that he is a good father and husband and a caring boss and religious leader. These efforts may have spoken to the perception of Romney as an ice-cold business consultant, but they didn’t get to voters’ basic question about who Romney really cares about and stands for.
In the end, Romney’s personal popularity may not determine the election’s outcome. In 1968, voters put aside their doubts about Richard Nixon’s character because they thought he could deal better with the nation’s problems than his opponents. If the economy worsens, and if Romney does well in the debates, voters may decide that they want a businessman in charge even if he is one they don’t fully trust. But if the election continues on its present course, voters’ preference for Obama’s character over Romney’s is likely to prove decisive.