A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST
Will Barack Obama’s innate likability turn out to be the decisive factor that keeps him in the White House?
Several polls suggest that the president’s biggest advantage over Mitt Romney involves the strong tendency of Americans to see him as more friendly, accessible, and personally appealing than his GOP challenger. Even with dark clouds surrounding the economy and highly energized, well-funded conservatives preparing to storm the seat of power, Obama strategists view Fortress Likability as the final, secure stronghold that will deliver them from all electoral dangers. The Romney camp counters with arguments that cite several emerging factors sure to undermine Obama’s perceived personality advantage and hope that voters will make their ultimate choice on a more substantive basis.
The recent past certainly indicates a strong popular preference for likable candidates: in the 32 years since 1980, all eight presidential contests have gone to the contender who came across as more genial and down to earth to the press and the public. With his sunny disposition, Ronald Reagan easily dispatched Mr. Malaise himself, Jimmy Carter, and then enjoyed even more smashing success against the dour Walter Mondale.
George H.W. Bush could come across as stiff, inauthentic, and insufferably preppy but he had the great good fortune in 1988 to run against the beetle-browed, grumpy Gus, Michael Dukakis. When he tried for a second term, however, he faced an earthy Arkansan named Bill Clinton, whose winks and nudges about his own, down-home rascality only seemed to make him more endearing to many Americans. Clinton against Dole? No contest in that one when it came to charm and seduction skills.
Though millions of citizens still despise him, George W. Bush also benefited from a likability edge that delivered his back-to-back victories. In one celebrated 2004 poll, the American people chose the incumbent commander in chief over Democratic rival John Kerry as the candidate who’d provide better company while sharing a beer–an ironic advantage considering Bush’s well-advertised teetotaling as a reformed problem drinker. Kerry, like Al Gore before him, conveyed a strikingly supercilious attitude of Ivy League pomposity while W., with his goofy gaffes (“a man has to work hard to put food on his family”), his cowboy swagger, his heart-on-the-sleeve Christian faith, and his West Texas twang, struck people as a good ol’ boy–never mind his membership in the same super-elite Secret Society at Yale that had tapped John Kerry just two years ahead of him.