WASHINGTON -- How much voters really like or dislike a presidential candidate, a quantity known in the polling business as the "favorability rating," doesn't get the attention it deserves.
Election pollsters are constantly calculating this, but the results tend to get pushed aside, or buried, by the stories about who's ahead or behind, or the sensationalized revelations, fumbles, blunders and misstatements that can scuttle a candidacy.
Political analysts and reporters hate to admit it, but the fact of the matter is that many voters pick whom to vote for based on their perception of a candidate's persona, and this decision is made on a very instinctual level. Is a candidate likeable? Do they appear honest, or untrustworthy, calculating and evasive?
The Gallup Poll recently asked voters the favorable/unfavorable rating question, and the results show once again that Sen. Hillary Clinton is far and away the most unlikable in the bunch. In answer to the question, "Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton?" 53 percent said favorable and 44 percent said unfavorable. Her unfavorability rating has been as high as 50 percent in a number of other polls over this two-year period, but rarely lower than the mid-to-high 40s. Among all of the major candidates in her party, she has consistently been the least likeable -- usually by a wide margin.
Campaign strategists tell me that Clinton's high index of unfavorability is driven by voters who think she takes positions based solely on political calculations. Voters sense that, all too often, she sounds evasive in her answers, untrustworthy and dishonest in her statements of principle.
That perception hardened this month when her claim that she ran for cover avoiding snipers during a trip to Tuzla, Bosnia, as first lady turned up entirely bogus. Cable news shows last week repeatedly aired videos of Clinton telling the big whopper, followed by archival film showing her calmly walking off the plane, being greeted by dignitaries, and sauntering to her car.
Contrary to the claim that her plane had to make a "corkscrew" landing to avoid incoming fire, her pilot, retired Air Force Col. William Changose, recalled in a radio interview that there was no "evasive" maneuver as Clinton described it. "Not only were there no bullets flying around, there wasn't a bumblebee flying around," he said.
On the other hand, Barack Obama, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, has consistently drawn high favorables and low unfavorables. Even people who say they will vote for someone else like him. Sixty two percent gave him a favorable rating and only 33 percent were unfavorable, Gallup said.
His low unfavorables could change as a result of the negative fallout from the hateful and inflammatory racial remarks made by his minister and longtime mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The unanswered issue that threatens to undo Obama's campaign is his statement that he never heard his pastor make such statements in the 20 years he attended services there. Anecdotal evidence tells a different story.
Hillary, dealing with her own issues of candor and honesty, took a shot at Obama last week, suggesting that she would have left the church if she had heard such remarks from the pulpit and that Obama had that choice, too.
But neither of these Democrats receives the favorability scores of Sen. John McCain who draws extraordinarily high ratings not only from GOP voters, but also from Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. The Arizona senator's 67 percent favorable rating "is the highest of any of the three major candidates running for president, and ties for his highest in Gallup polling history," Gallup found. Remarkably, he gets a 52 percent favorable response from Democratic voters and leaners. Obama, however, gets a 39 percent favorable rating from Republicans and GOP leaners, while Hillary receives just 20 percent.
"McCain is also helped by the fact he receives an 87 percent favorable rating from Republicans, higher than the 80 percent and 79 percent that Clinton and Obama, respectively, currently received from Democrats," Gallup reported.
Meanwhile, the trench warfare between Hillary and Obama shows no signs of a letup, moving inexorably to a showdown at the convention in August where less than 300 unpledged superdelegates will decide who will be the nominee. Superdelegates who have e-mailed me are not tipping their hand, but some say they cannot see themselves voting against the candidate who has won the most delegates, votes and primary contests, and that points to Obama, who will come out of the final primaries with a lead on all three.
If it's McCain versus Obama, the likeability factor will be largely a moot issue, since both have favorables in the 60s. Then it will come down to a contest between an experienced, mostly, but not always, conservative Republican who appeals to independents, and a likeable, inexperienced down-the-line liberal Democrat with a tissue-paper thin resume for the awesome job he is seeking.