Friday, April 20, 2007

Do You Like Me?

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.


Democracy Lover said...

An interesting analysis, but I wish Americans were more concerned with a candidate's stand on the key issues than with their LQ, their fundraising skills, or whether they are peaking early.

We have serious problems with our political and electoral process. All you have to do is look at the last few Presidents and ask - is this the best America has to offer?

Reach Upward said...

Peggy Noonan, who was a Reagan speech writer and very much admired Reagan, said as much a couple of years ago. Unfortunately I can't find the link to her article. She said that our system of selecting a president has consistently given us a cadre of pretty odd ducks over the past century. She included Reagan in that number.

I am not saying that LQ should be as important as it is. I am simply explaining the way I think it actually works.

By the time Americans are standing in the voting booth, most of them are voting based on charicatures of the candidates. Many factors go into the drawing and skewing of those charicatures. Certainly the candidates' campaign machines are a significant part of the problem. The Media does its share. Pundits and bloggers do their share.

It's very difficult for the average American to get an accurate picture of who is running and what they stand for. Most Americans don't have enough time to become deeply informed. So they settle for voting on surface issues. The upshot is that no winner will end up doing everything we want or being quite what we expected, even if we supported them.

Such is the nature of an imperfect world.

Matthias said...

I think television and the preponderance of image-based news media has gone a long way toward pushing the importance of the LQ. Instead of choosing words wisely and explaining things carefully, candidates instead focus on putting forward a carefully manicured image to encourage positive subconscious feelings about the candidate.

There is a way to counteract this, of course... but it would involve voting restrictions that would probably be unconstitutional.

Although I like Neal Boortz's suggestion: anyone who can't name the current president, their congressman and one of their senators at the voting booth should not be allowed inside.

Reach Upward said...

I could live with those restrictions, but it would require a constitutional amendment.

Democracy Lover said...

I don't think we need unconstitutional changes in our process. We do need to ban any contribution, direct or indirect, by any corporation to any political campaign, political action group, or any other organization attempting to influence elections or legislation. That would not be unconstitutional because the framers clearly never intended the Bill of Rights to apply to corporations.

Public financing, the return of the Fairness Doctrine and the requirement that broadcasters serve the public interest, and breakup of the media conglomerates would also have a nice impact and would be constitutional.

Matthias said...

I wouldn't mind limiting corporate contributions (just like I wouldn't mind seeing some of the ultra-rich types like George Soros throwing millions of dollars into partisan media organizations).

But I do think the "Fariness Doctrine" is pretty unconstitutional. When they wanted to protect free speech the Founding Fathers were thinking about protecting political pamphleteering, which was so astoundingly partisan and vile, it would make most of us blush. "Fair" hardly entered into it. I think that the mainstream media is unfair, but I don't want the government telling it what it can and cannot say.

Nevertheless, I don't see how limiting free speech or corporate contributions would make people better voters.

Democracy Lover said...

The Fairness doctrine was on the books for 50 years and in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine. When the Reagan Administration removed it, we got the current flood of vile, vituperative talk radio and biased TV coverage that we suffer under today.

I don't want to limit free speech either, but free speech is a right granted to individual citizens, not to corporations. Would it make people better voters? Probably. If we eliminated the constant money-grubbing at the heart of American politics, eliminated the 30-second campaign spot, made our news media cover all the candidates, not just those they liked or wanted to smear, voters would have much more information and more accurate information to use in making decisions. Also, they would feel that their contribution was really important and that big-money special interests had not already decided which candidates were allowed to win.

Reach Upward said...

I do not think the Founders ever intended for the government to become the arbiter of what anyone has or doesn't have to say about political issues, political contests, and candidates.

I completely disagree with the idea that government should enforce equal coverage for all candidates. With the numbers of minor parties that have limited voter appeal, the outcome would be ludicrous. Each candidate should have to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Forcing equal coverage would create more political apathy than our current system.

I don’t buy the anti-corporate arguments. Corporations are nothing more than conglomerates of people — people that have a right to their free speech, political and otherwise. It goes back to right of association. I do not defend the morality of corporate behavior, just as I do not defend the behaviors of unions or the ACLU. I do not have to agree with people or groups of people to think that they have a right to their political free speech as well as a right to organize and promote that speech.

I don’t have all the answers, but more government control is not the answer. I am troubled by those that place unfathomable religious faith in the ability of government to solve all problems. I think most of our Founders would agree with that assessment.

Democracy Lover said...

Candidates do need to compete in the marketplace of ideas, but in order to get the debate above the sound-bite, 30-second spot level, we need to insure that every candidate can speak to the public on relatively equal footing. The American people are quite capable of making decisions on the candidates if they have the information to do so.

Corporations are more than just groups of people, they are legal entities that take advantage of individual rights to which they are not entitled, sometimes commit crimes, but are never punished. The corporation has only one moral, only one objective - increase shareholder value. If that means corrupting government so it will pass laws in your favor, then so be it.

The individuals who work for a corporation or who own shares, or who manage it are certainly entitled to their rights and to participate in the electoral process.

Government, rightly constituted, is the mechanism through which we the people solve our common problems. It doesn't deserve blind faith - nothing does, but without the power of government, individual citizens are overwhelmed by the power of corporations. The Founders never intended that either.