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The likability sweeps

Posted: May 22, 2012 3:08 p.m.
Updated: May 23, 2012 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- A presidential race recently focused on high school has come to resemble a popularity contest of the same vintage.

Hence, we read that women like Barack best (except when they don’t). This week, a New York Times/CBS News poll shows women tilting toward Mitt and voters overall favoring him by 46 percent to 43 percent. But you know how girls are. A month ago, according to a CNN/ORC poll, women loved Obama 55 percent to 39 percent. Next week, check your Eight Ball.

The concept of likability isn’t new, but this election provides fresh criteria.  The old standard of judging candidates by which one you’d rather join for a beer doesn’t apply because Mormons don’t drink. No beer summits in a Romney administration. You can’t even figure with whom you’d rather share a cup of coffee.

So we focus instead on which guy we like based on instincts that were honed in -- you got it -- high school. Almost daily, we hear that Romney isn’t (or wasn’t always) such a sweet guy. Most recent to the roster of his offenses is an event nearly 50 years ago when he and his prep school classmates tackled a longhaired boy (who later identified himself as gay) and lopped his locks.

This report followed by a single day the president’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage. The comparison was grim for Romney, even if his bad behavior occurred five decades ago and despite his having no apparent animus toward the gay community. Under no fair debate can support for traditional marriage necessarily be construed as bigotry toward gays.

The fact that Romney claims not to remember the hair-cutting incident is a curiosity to many, but not all. These differences of opinion will continue mostly as a Rorschach based on one’s own experiences as a high school student. For now, we leave such discussions to our inner voices in order to save a little space for the point of this column, which is that the Obama campaign seems dedicated to advancing the notion that Obama is the nicer guy and therefore should be re-elected. Polling supports this premise for now -- with Obama twice as likable as Romney. The question is whether likability is enough when polling also shows that four in 10 voters think Obama’s policies will make their financial situations worse if he is re-elected.

A case can be made that a campaign that focuses on likability is a campaign that doesn’t want to run on its record. A case also can be made that voters can be swayed by feel-good fare given the complexity of our problems. Thus, Obama has taken pains to demonstrate just how wonderful he really is -- one demographic at a time.

Here he is surrounded by adoring Barnard College graduates following a pro-woman commencement address, while a campaign ad asserts that Romney has thrown women under the bus. (See “Republican War on Women.”) Who you gonna like?

The juxtaposition is reminiscent of Obama standing before a delirious mob in Berlin (Germany) while John McCain held forth before a half-dozen admirers at “Schmidt’s Restaurant und Sausage Haus” in German Village in Columbus, Ohio. In politics, it’s all about optics.

Here’s Obama on the cover of Newsweek being promoted as the first gay president. This may help him with his base, but polls show that the broader voting audience isn’t strongly swayed one way or the other. Two-thirds (67 percent) of those polled said Obama’s support for same-sex marriage was politically motivated, while 57 percent said it would have no effect on their vote.

Finally, here’s an Obama ad characterizing Romney as a “vampire” who, while head of Bain Capital, sometimes profited from failed businesses that also sometimes resulted in job losses. This is otherwise known as capitalism, but never mind. For likability, see auto bailout.

This last example is at least of a more substantive nature, suggesting a real debate about different approaches to the marketplace. But what’s clear for now is that Obama is hoping he can hold on to the affections of a coalition of admirers who will overlook his flaws simply because they like him. The larger truth of Romney’s adult life, including far more business successes than failures -- not to mention a resume of service to others -- could tilt the likability meter in time, though one hopes for deeper soul-searching.

Likability, like popularity contests, is so high school.

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