People can disagree on policy, but let's face it, Barack Obama is the guy we want to have a beer with. The president is clearly crazy about his two kids, and he relates at eye level with other parents. (No video for Sasha and Malia on school nights!) He wrote movingly about his no-frills upbringing in a single-parent household, and he often talks about his and Michelle Obama's struggle to pay off their student loans. His favorite splurge food is the gooey, third-of-a-pound special from Ray's Hell Burger.
But being a regular guy doesn't win elections in an economy as stubbornly resistant to recovery as this one seems to be. Or does it?
Polls this week show that Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a dead heat in the contest for president, and the common assumption is that the tie-breaker will be the candidate who ultimately convinces the public he is the more capable steward of the economy. But there is another bit of survey data that confounds the simplicity of the political expectations of 2012.
One consistent finding in polls taken since the fall field took shape is, regardless of party, people like Obama, and they like him a lot more than they like Mitt Romney, he who fires people, provides his wife multiple Cadillacs, and gang-snips the hair of the gay kid in high school. Last month, an ABC/Washington Post survey found Obama leading Romney by a lopsided 64-26 percent on the question of who seems to be the more likable person. Even Republicans like Obama, with 42 percent in the same poll saying Obama is personally more appealing to them.
The president also kills the competition on some of the qualities that shape likeability. A USA Today/Gallup survey in early May put Obama 10 points ahead on "cares about the needs of people like you" (51 - 41 percent) and 12 points ahead on "agrees with you on issues you care about" (52 - 40 percent). These numbers tend to hold up in poll after poll even as prospective voters express doubts about him on big issues.
Just 43 percent of people approve of his handling of the economy, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll published this week, and respondents gave him negative marks on the budget deficit (47 percent say he's made things worse), health care (43 percent), partisanship in politics (39 percent) and the housing market (32 percent). His overall job-approval rating in the poll was still underwater at 48 percent.
So why wouldn't voters deny a second term to a fun but floundering chief executive? Because people vote for president with their hearts, not their heads, even when they think they're voting with their heads, says Garrett Glasgow, a University of California, Santa Barbara, political scientist who has studied the impact of the economy on voting behavior.
"If you dig a little deeper (into voting data), almost all of it is driven by partisanship and what they think about the candidates," he said. "Maybe it's not surprising. ... Most voters are operating in what we call a low information environment, where there are competing claims. They don't have the tools to figure out who's right and who's wrong, and they fall back on who seems more competent, who has the track record I like, and historically which party produced better outcomes for me."
Peter Brown, who analyzes polls for Quinnipiac University, says of the likeability quotient, "It's an advantage. It's a tool that helps in areas where he may not score as well, such as the economy."
This X factor of politics also explains why the Obama campaign has spent millions of dollars out of the gate on television ads, not to defend the president's record on job creation, the recovering housing market or the possible benefits of his health care plan, but on attack ads portraying Romney as a heartless corporate raider. While voters by now know Obama well, they are just getting to know Romney. Before he can define himself, Obama wants to define him as someone who is wholly unlikeable. And that will ultimately impact how they view Romney's potential stewardship of the economy.
As Glasgow said, "If you think Romney is a tough, smart businessman, you're going to think what he's proposing is good for the economy. If you think he's a calloused businessman, just trying to enrich his buddies, you're going to think his economic plan is bad."
Unless Romney does something soon to counteract Obama's image-makers, the winner of the economic argument will be the guy at the college playoff game eating a hot dog with the British prime minister.
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