(May I call you that?) I understand that you probably don’t read my blog. You are a busy person, after all, with your column and all that goes with being a celebrity journalist (may I call you that?). Your time is undoubtedly precious. But do you read your own paper – the one that publishes your column? Not the whole paper, mind you, but maybe just the op-ed page. You know, that section that publishes opinion pieces (like yours)?
I ask because a reader sent me a link to your August 11 New York Times column, titled “Likability Index”. In it, you discuss whether President Obama and Mitt Romney are truly likable people. You claim that Obama is a lot more likable, at least when viewed from a distance, than is Mitt. This likability gap is important because, you suggest, it will determine who wins the presidential election: “The big difference, the one that will probably decide this presidential race, is this: Barack Obama is able to convey an impression of likability to voters. Given how private he is, an enigma even to some who are close to him, it’s an incredible performance.”
Yes, Obama “can be thin-skinned and insecure at times, but he radiates self-sufficiency, such a clean, simple aesthetic that he could have been designed by Steve Jobs — Siri without the warmth.” As for poor Mitt, well, here are your words: “Romney started out off-putting and now makes Willy Loman look like prom king. Obama is introverted and graceful; Romney is introverted and awkward.” Ouch!
I realize you have some data to back up your claim of a likability gap; as you note, there’s extensive polling evidence indicating that Obama has “better numbers on honesty, trust and empathy” in addition to enjoying a sizable advantage in likability. Your conclusion? “Once a candidate gains the advantage in ‘Who do you want to have a beer with?’ — even if he doesn’t drink beer — it’s very hard to reverse.”
Oh no! Not the beer test! I thought I debunked the myth of the beer test in this post, when – drawing in part on research by three prominent political scientists – I argued that there was no strong relationship between the candidates’ relative likability and the outcome of the presidential election during the period 1952-2000. I concluded: “The point here is one I’ve made before: presidential elections are driven by fundamentals – national conditions and candidates’ issue positions – far more than they are by the candidates’ personal qualities. Indeed, I don’t know of a single reputable presidential election forecast model that incorporates likability ratings.” Clearly, however, you aren’t a regular reader of my blog. But surely you read your own paper? If so, you might have run across this piece on your paper’s very own opinion page written by one of those prominent political scientists, in which he argues “that a candidate’s likability is a relatively minor factor in deciding modern presidential elections.”
Once again, in case you missed it when it was published in the Times, here is the summary data in graphical form:
It shows that, historically, the candidate rated higher on the personal dimension did not always win the election. Indeed, in 1996, Bill Clinton – the most negatively rated candidate of all during this period – trounced World War II veteran Bob Dole, while in 1980 voters soundly rejected Jimmy Carter despite his sterling personal qualities.
Of course, 2012 might be different. Maybe, in a very close election, enough voters’ choices will turn on whether they prefer to have a beer with Mitt (non-alcoholic, of course) or the President to swing the election one way or another. If that happens, here’s my promise to you Mo (may I call you that?): I’m buying the next round.
Do you drink Miller Lite?
(Yes, you can call me that.)