TAMPA, Fla. — If the presidential election were held today, Romney and Obama would be more or less tied, the latest polls show. But on one voter test, Obama has a clear advantage:
Whom would you rather have a beer with?
Or, if you don't drink (as Romney doesn't), whom would you rather have a cup of coffee with? Or take with you on a road trip (with or without your dog)? Or invite over for dinner?
Simply put, there is a likability gap.
This may seem trivial compared to questions like, say, which candidate you think will better revive the economy or safeguard the nation's nuclear weapons. But election after election has demonstrated that how voters feel about their candidate matters. A lot. It buoyed Ronald Reagan and helped sink John Kerry.
Likability has become a political buzzword that stands for something deeper. More like affinity. Empathy. How well does he or she connect? How much does he understand people like me?
There are Republicans who think this will be the deciding issue for Mitt Romney. He has about as good a playing field as a challenger could hope for, yet has not broken past the president. The election, they believe, may well turn on whether Romney can use this week's convention and the fall debates to really connect with voters in a way he has not yet been able to.
Democrats see this as Obama's core asset. Even in these hard times, voters feel he gets their plight better than the rich guy does. Asked which candidate better understands the problems of people like you, Obama beats Romney among registered voters 51 to 36 percent in the latest AP/GfK poll. Some 53 percent of adults hold a "favorable" opinion of the president, compared with just 44 percent who view Romney favorably.
And that is a president who isn't actually all that touchy-feely himself, having at times been compared to the "Star Trek" alien Mr. Spock, who suppressed emotion in order to solve problems. In fact, Obama's personal ratings are lower than most presidential candidates in recent elections, notes polltaker Andrew Kohut. They are just better than Romney's.
That is Romney's challenge.
Can he persuade voters to feel comfortable enough with him to turn out Obama? Not just to agree with him on issues but to trust him with their futures? That is why likability is about a lot more than having a beer.
It is about addressing what The Economist, a business-oriented British newsmagazine, editorialized as their "main doubt" about Romney: "Nobody knows who this strange man really is."
One striking element of this long campaign is how little Romney did over years of campaigning to really introduce himself, apparently not wanting to distract from discussion of the weak economy.
But Romney and his campaign were on course to use this convention to "warm up" his image. The candidate and his wife, Ann, sat down with Fox News at their home in New Hampshire the other day.
The correspondent, Chris Wallace, shared their pancakes as Ann described how Mitt had ironed his own shirt just that morning. "I noticed he was doing the laundry last night," she disclosed.
For his part, Romney did what he could to address the issue: "Remember that Popeye line, 'I am what I am and that's all what I am.'" What voters really want, he says, is effective management of the economy and for that he is your man.
In another interview, published by Politico on Monday, Romney acknowledged his likability problem but blamed it on the waves of attack ads Obama and his allies have launched against him (although his personal ratings were low even before the barrage).
He tried to turn the issue around on Obama, calling him a nice guy but a failed president.
In other words, American public, you liked Obama as a candidate but are disappointed in him as a president, while I, Romney, may be disappointing as your candidate but will deliver as your president.
Jon Stewart scoffed when George W. Bush (at that point a teetotaler) was described as a guy you'd love to have a beer with. I don't want a president I can have a beer with, Stewart said, "I want my president to be the designated driver." Given the highway pileup the American economy has just been through, Stewart's quip isn't all that far from Romney's campaign argument.
But can likability or affinity be separated from issues and effectiveness? That is becoming one of the principal questions of this campaign.
The question is sometimes posed as if managing the economy, on which Romney scores better, is different from the personal qualities that Obama scores better on. Some Republicans argue that Obama's personal ratings are all that keep him afloat amid the economic wreckage.
But that misses the point, says one Democratic consultant. Those personal qualities may actually be a way some voters connect politics to their economic facts of life.
"If you are part of the working class and you believe that the deck has been stacked against people like you for a decade or so," this consultant said, "who is likely to be the more 'desirable' remedy for that — the financial CEO who 'understands' the economy or the guy you think is fighting for people like you?"
Which is why fighting for you is an Obama campaign mantra.
In trying to overcome this, Romney is banging into a pretty deep vein of American political feeling. Ever since Andrew Jackson let his supporters traipse mud through the White House, there has been a resistance to letting the patricians back in power.
It took a huge economic crisis for Americans to elect the Hudson valley gentryman, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover in fact was a good man, just a failed president, which is exactly what Romney is trying to say about Obama.
Romney's team has been planning to use the convention to highlight Obama's failure, as they see it, without denying the president's likability — and their own candidate's competence, as they see it, while acknowledging the need to humanize him.
This highlights the risk they have taken by waiting until so late in the campaign to try to personalize the candidate. Because Hurricane Isaac has intervened, in more ways than one.
On the obvious level, it has disrupted and overshadowed the convention so far. It has created a conversation about the last Republican administration's handling of a natural disaster when Romney would like to talk about the present Democratic administration's handling of the economy.
But as if to confirm that he is what he is (to channel Popeye again), the hurricane has created the kind of test for Romney that campaigns so often throw at candidates, a sudden change of terrain when the campaign was in the middle of doing something else.
These moments can be opportunities. What better chance to project empathy and connection than a looming threat to life and property? And Romney, Ann at his side, seemed to start out that way. The couple's thoughts, he said, were with the people in the storm's path, and he expressed hope that "they're spared any major destruction."Comment on this story
A more empathic politician might have left it at that, as his running mate, Paul Ryan, did. But Romney kept going, effusive about the convention and how it would go on despite the storm.
"I like my speech. I really like Ann's speech," he said. "Our sons are already in Tampa, and they say it's terrific there — a lot of great friends. And we're looking forward to a great convention."
Which, if his ear for connecting with people is as tin as it seems to be there, might be somewhat less likely than he hopes.