Back in 2004, I debated Jonah Goldberg about the presidential election. Bush will win, Jonah said, because after sniffing both of these guys for a while, Americans have simply decided they don’t like Kerry very much. Nonsense, I said. Likeability is in the eye of the beholder. Most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Democrats have the demographic advantage. But I was too clever by half. Jonah was basically right.
Eight years later, something similar may be happening. Conventional wisdom suggests that an incumbent presiding over a people this unhappy should lose. According to a June poll by the Pew Research Center, only 11 percent of Americans think the economy is “excellent” or “good.” Only 28 percent (PDF) are “satisfied with the way things are going in the country.” Americans think (PDF) the country is on the “wrong track” by a margin of almost two to one.
And to a significant degree, they blame Barack Obama. A January Pew poll found that only 38 percent approve of the way he’s handling the economy. On the budget deficit, only 34 percent approve. On energy, it’s 36 percent. When asked in June which candidate is best capable of “improving economic conditions”—clearly the election’s dominant issue—Pew found that Mitt Romney bests Obama by eight points.
Yet despite all this, about as many Americans approve of the job Obama’s doing as disapprove. And he leads slightly in the polls. Which is to say, there’s a yawning gap between how Americans feel the country is doing and how they feel Obama is doing. There’s even a significant gap between the way they feel about Obama’s performance on key issues and the way they feel about his performance overall.
The most plausible explanation is that a lot of Americans just simply like the guy. When Obama took office in 2009, Americans held wildly positive views of his personal characteristics. According to Pew, 92 percent considered him a “good communicator,” 87 percent deemed him “warm and friendly,” 81 percent said he “cares about people like me,” 79 percent thought him “well-informed,” and 76 percent judged him “trustworthy.” Since then, each of those numbers has declined between 10 and 20 points. But they began at such stratospherically high levels that even with the drop, the public’s perception of Obama as a person remains remarkably cheery. Perhaps it’s because compared to past presidencies, Obama’s has been less plagued by scandal. Perhaps it’s because Obama’s personal story still makes people proud of America. Perhaps it’s because Obama is widely considered intelligent and well-spoken. Perhaps it’s because, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but unlike John Kerry and Al Gore, he has that intangible quality: authenticity. He seems comfortable in his own skin.
For whatever reason, Americans seem to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. When Pew asked them to describe him in a word earlier this year, the second most popular answer was “incompetent.” “Socialist” came in fourth. But the first, third, fifth and sixth most popular adjectives were “good,” “intelligent,” “honest,” and “trying.”
The contrast with Mitt Romney could not be starker. According to the June Pew, while Romney leads on the economy, Obama enjoys a 31 point advantage on “connect[ing] to ordinary Americans.” He leads by 19 points on being “willing to take [an] unpopular stand.” By a 14 point margin, Americans consider him more “honest and truthful.” According to Gallup, Americans deem him more “likeable” by a whopping 17 points.
This 2012 election may, in fact, be the most personality-driven in recent memory. For several presidential election cycles now, Pew has been asking voters why they support their favored candidate: “Leadership,” “Experience,” “Stand on Issues,” or “Personality.” Among Romney supporters, 4 percent cite personality, the same percentage as cited it for Al Gore in 2000. For John McCain in 2008, the figure was 3 percent. For George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, it was 8 percent each. For Obama this year, it’s 18 percent.
In recent weeks, Democrats have been fretting that it’s too late to change people’s opinion about the economy. That’s true. But it may also be too late to change their opinions about what Obama and Romney are like as people. And for better or worse, that may matter more.