Sept. 6 (Bloomberg) -- I keep hearing and reading that Mitt Romney has a likeability problem. The Republican presidential candidate trails President Barack Obama by 23 points, according to an Aug. 20-22 USA Today/Gallup poll. The early post-convention polling suggests a slight bounce in Romney’s likeability, but not enough, apparently, to ensure entry to the White House.
Since at least 1984, the more likeable candidate has won the presidential election, according to the Washington Post. At 31 percent, Romney ranks below such losers as Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
Leading up to the Republican National Convention last week, pundits of both persuasions said the party’s goal was to “humanize Mitt Romney,” as if he were some sort of primate that hadn’t fully evolved from the apes; to show us what kind of a person Romney really is; and to make him appear less wooden and more touchy-feely, or something like that.
That’s exactly what many of the speakers at the convention did. And what was the response from the chattering class? Romney’s speech was devoid of policy proposals. The guy just can’t win.
Those paying tribute to Romney -- people who have known him or worked with him over a period of 30 years -- talked of a caring, compassionate and honorable man, a hard worker who has devoted his life “to quietly serving others.”
“Quietly” is the operative word. No 21-gun salute to announce his good deeds. Charity in the truest sense.
Jane Edmonds, who was a member of Romney’s Cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007 and described herself as a “liberal Democrat,” said she was struck by his grace and humanity. “I just wanted to be around him,” Edmonds said when she addressed the convention on the final night, Aug. 30.
To be sure, every candidate can summon a short list of friends and associates to attest to his character and accomplishments. But something struck me about the testimonials to Romney. Bob White, the chairman of Romney for President, has been at his side for three decades. It wasn’t because he found Romney unlikeable.
So here’s the odd thing: Those whose lives Romney touched like, admire and respect him. His problem is with those who see him through the filter of TV and print. Romney doesn’t brag about the 10 to 20 hours a week he devoted to helping others when he was pastor of the Mormon church in Belmont, Massachusetts. This is who he is and what he does.
Even the New York Times can’t find anything bad to say about Romney’s character in all the profiles it has done, starting with his days at Harvard Business School and continuing through his affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to Bain Capital to the Salt Lake City Olympics to the Statehouse in Massachusetts.
So what constitutes likeability? And what aspects are necessary for Americans to install someone in the White House for four years?
Bill Clinton was a likeable guy: a real people person. You could imagine sitting down to have a beer with him at a bar -- and only getting up to leave hours later. Of course, if you happen to be female, you might not want to be the last person in the bar with him at 1 a.m. But, hey, trust has nothing to do with likeability, right?
What about Ronald Reagan? Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy before him, Reagan was widely admired for his ability to communicate with the American public. They didn’t call him the Great Communicator for nothing. Such likeability wasn’t borne out in the polls. Reagan’s average approval rating for the first two years in office was lower than any first-term president since pollsters began tracking the numbers.
True, the U.S. economy suffered back-to-back recessions in 1980 and 1981-1982. Still, why was Reagan portrayed as popular in the face of approval ratings to the contrary? His secret weapon: The Washington press corps liked him, even if they didn’t like his policies, according to “The Press and the Illusion of Public Opinion: The Strange Case of Ronald Reagan’s ‘Popularity,”’ by Elliot King and Michael Schudson, part of a collection of scholarly articles on communication and public opinion.
Reporters dutifully cited Reagan’s poll numbers, then went about creating the impression that he was more popular, King and Schudson claim. “The evidence suggests that at no time in Reagan’s first years was the general public as charmed as the news media,” the authors found.
Therein lies the challenge for Romney: to win over the mainstream media. Not an easy task for a Republican, mind you. But here are a few suggestions from a card-carrying member of the press:
Invite some of the old-time White House correspondents up to Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, for a weekend of aquatic sports, fun and games, good food and wine (none for the host) with the extended Romney clan.
Tell Barbara Walters and the women of ABC’s “The View” that you want to schmooze with them on the couch. With your good looks, nothing else will matter.
Enlist your Harvard Business School alumni, a “Who’s Who” of American exceptionalism and any networker’s dream, to tout your personal appeal.
Finally, the best way to make sure the media are in your pocket is to put them in your pocket: Buy a media company. That would be one sure-fire way to achieve Reagan-like popularity, be it illusive or real.
(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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