The economy is in the toilet, unemployment is over 8%, our foreign policy is a mess, and President Obama’s approval ratings are dismal. And yet, polls show him still running neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney, if not a little bit ahead. How can that be?
You might recall my theory–articulated, for example, here, in which I predict an Obama victory– that in our postmodern times the majority of the American people vote for a candidate not primarily because of ideology, policy ideas, nor issues of any kind. Such appeals to objectivity and even to pragmatism are the stuff of modernism. In a postmodern democracy, the main factor is which candidate voters “like” the best. That is, the candidate voters consider to have the most pleasant personality.
Consider the winners over the last few decades: Obama vs. McCain; Bush II vs. Kerry; Bush II vs. Gore; Clinton vs. Dole; Clinton vs. Bush I; Bush I vs. Dukakis; Reagan vs. Mondale; Reagan vs. Carter. Doesn’t my theory hold? Now before that, the theory doesn’t apply, since in those modernist days Carter could beat the more likeable Ford, and Nixon could beat the more likable McGovern and Humphrey. Of course, not everyone agrees in whom they like, but this also explains the antipathies that also are factors in elections: Lots of people just cannot stand George W. Bush, a visceral feeling that goes far beyond rational assessment, associated with feelings about privileged rich kids, frat-boys, and smug right-wing Texans. Obama’s cerebral, detached, professorial personality makes some people dislike him while making others like him.
My theory in the past has been somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but now there is actually data to support it! From Karen Tumulty, writing in the Washington Post:
If you believe the polls, it would appear there is one big factor standing in the way of Mitt Romney being elected president: Americans don’t like him as well as they do Barack Obama.
That was confirmed again in a new USA Today-Gallup survey in which respondents gave Romney higher marks on the economic issues, which voters say they care most about this year. But President Obama crushed Romney — 60 percent to 30 percent — on the question of which of the two was more likable.
In April, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found an even larger gap, with 64 percent of those surveyed describing Obama as the friendlier, more likable candidate, and only 26 percent saying that about Romney. . . .
In every presidential election for the past two decades, the candidate viewed as more likable was the one who won.
Romney is just hopeless when it comes to social graces. He goes to England for the Olympics and instead of the glad-handing pleasantries that are called for on such an occasion insults his hosts by worrying about security and labor problems and wondering if the country is ready to put on the show. Never mind that the British people have been expressing the same concerns, but this is just a social awkwardness that Romney keeps showing.
It has become campaign dogma that “It’s the economy, stupid,” and there is evidence that economic conditions are the major factor in the elections, above. I hope that’s the case, that the American people will look to objective considerations of some kind, but I wonder if they will. Then again, the likability of Obama as compared to Romney might be a close call.