The Washington Post’s most recent glance at the 2008 presidential race seems to bear out what has been known for months. More Democrats are satisfied with their party’s current field of candidates (80%) than are Republicans with their field of candidates (65%).
Although Democrats might be happy, Senator Clinton’s high (and climbing) negative ratings among Americans in general make her less viable as a general election candidate. Senator McCain, on the other hand, has become more viable as a general election candidate, going from 28% a year ago to 47% today. Rudy Giuliani is still the Republican front runner, but his support is on the decline just as most political watchers have expected would happen as voters got to know more about him.
Senator Obama’s momentum appears to have leveled off somewhat, although, he seems to be doing great at fundraising. Senator Edwards’ support seems to be holding steady for now. Governor Romney currently commands only 9% of GOP and Independent support. That leaves him tied with Senator Thompson, who hasn’t even formally announced a bid for the presidency yet.
Governor Romney has proven himself a formidable fundraiser. But his problem courting voters goes very deep. For starters, he still has a significant recognition problem among likely voters. That is, most voters simply have formed no opinion about the governor one way or another.
But Governor Romney’s real problem lies with those that do have an opinion about him. Only 7% would currently vote for him, but a full 54% would not. That means that at least one of his negative indicators exceeds even Senator Clinton’s. Although this includes the governor’s much discussed “Mormon problem,” it goes far deeper than that.
The history of presidential races since the advent of modern media reveals that voters want a candidate that is likable. President Nixon was able to buck this trend due to some highly unusual events. (The assassination of Bobby Kennedy, who was the favored Democratic candidate, coupled with George Wallace running as an Independent resulted in Hubert Humphrey’s fairly narrow loss in 1968. The Democrats disastrously nominated George McGovern in 1972. McGovern was possibly the only major candidate that could possibly have been less likable than Nixon.)
But consider who seems more likeable out of the other races. Kennedy-Nixon: Kennedy (famously so). Johnson-Goldwater: Johnson (especially after the highly successful Daisy ad that painted Goldwater as a nuclear warmonger). Ford-Carter: Carter. Carter-Reagan: Reagan. Reagan-Mondale: Reagan (by a long shot). Bush-Dukakis: Bush (especially after Dukakis’ stupid tank ride and the Willie Horton debacle). Bush-Clinton: Clinton (Mr. Charm himself). Clinton-Dole: Clinton (Duh! Dole came across more like the corpse at a funeral). Bush-Gore: Bush (Gore has his assets, but he’s not very likeable). Bush-Kerry: Bush (Kerry was another corpse).
Multiple factors (that are difficult to quantify) go into a candidate’s likeability quotient (let’s call it LQ). One factor that destroys LQ is obvious avarice for power. This can sometimes be overcome if other LQ factors are high enough (such as charm, charisma, personal warmth, or being a sympathetic character). Senator Clinton faces serious challenges because nearly half of all voters see her raw avarice, while she fares poorly in any of the pleasant characteristics that could temper that drawback.
Senator Obama scores well in all of the factors where Senator Clinton is lacking, but this may be insufficient to win him the Democratic nomination, just as candidates with higher LQ were unable to beat out Bob Dole for the GOP nomination in 1996. And for the same reason: the ability to call in long-owed favors and lock up party resources.
Another part of LQ is perceived genuineness. Reagan probably did better in this category than any of those discussed, but Carter did well in this area as well. Unfortunately Carter’s sincerity was not enough to combat all of the negative factors that he managed to develop during his first term.
Mayor Giuliani also scores well in coming across as genuine. Senator McCain's quirkiness raises his genuineness with some but lowers it with others. However, Governor Romney has serious problems here. He certainly has supporters that sense his sincerity, but most voters that know about him aren’t buying it. And because of that, his candidacy comes across as being done mostly for personal glory. Some politicians can get away with posturing and changing positions because they have other LQ assets that compensate.
Governor Romney is quite charismatic, but it feels contrived, not natural. He’s got the family values thing down in spades, but people are always wondering what is behind the façade. Too much of the governor’s persona comes across as a front for something. It’s possible that behind that polished wall is a candidate that most Americans would love to vote for. But somehow, the governor seems unable to let that man break through the meticulous barrier that hides him. And the harder he tries, the more contrived it all seems. It’s an odd paradox. But the governor’s overall LQ isn’t very high right now.
LQ is not the only factor in presidential politics, nor is it always the overriding factor. No one can accurately predict what will happen between now and the primaries next year and on through the following November. It would seem at present that some Republican nominee will end up going head-to-head with Senator Clinton, who has a seemingly irredeemably low LQ. The GOP might end up nominating someone with a worse LQ, just as the Democrats did with George McGovern in 1972, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It will be interesting to see how LQ plays in this race.
Things can change. But given the way things stand today, if I were a betting man, I’d wager that Governor Romney won’t be the one directly opposing Senator Clinton. Perhaps he will manage to let the real Mitt Romney out of his fancy prison before then, but I doubt it. Maybe his name will be in the ticket’s #2 position, but don’t look for it to be in the #1 slot.