Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
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.
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