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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gauging Candidate ‘Likeability’ an Elusive Challenge

One of America’s most treasured conceits is that our electorate votes on the basis issues and their interests, which they very often don’t do in the real world. A host of other factors come into play, including judgements about character, family tradition, party loyalty and others.
I’ve often wondered about the role of “likeability,” for lack of a better term, in candidate choice. I suspect that, who knows, maybe 5 percent of voters or more cast their ballots for a candidate because they like his/her personality. Sometimes this works to the benefit of Democrats, as possibly in 1960, when JFK got elected, or maybe ’92 and 2008, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, won.
I don’t know of any definitive measures for quantifying “likeability” in a useful way, although there have been a some dicey attempts. In 2007, for example, a Quinnipiac University poll asked respondents about their “preferences for guests at Thanksgiving dinner” The results indicated more Republicans wanted to have Obama over for Thanksgiving dinner than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, while Dems preferred Giuliani as a Republican guest over McCain and Thompson.
In that same year, an Associated Press/Yahoo survey quizzed the public about their choices for a bowling teammates. As for the most and least welcome bowling teammates, Hillary Clinton was last choice for 39 percent of respondents and first choice for 20 percent of respondents, while Giuliani was favored by 17 percent and opposed by 13 percent.
Neither one of these polls seems a very serious effort to quantify likeability for purposes of voting. Just because you want to have dinner or bowl with a candidate, it doesn’t mean they have nailed your vote. But it does seem like there should be a way to measure the phenomenon. There have also been “who was more likeable?” questions in polls to assess debate performance, but not much correlation with voting choices.
The “favorability” ratings in many polls are useful. But a favorable opinion about a candidate can be based on issue positions and job performance, well as personality factors. It’s not quite the same thing as ‘likeability,’ which is hard enough to define, much less quantify. Yet it could be a pivotal factor in a close election.
Obama seems to have likeability, which may be reflected in his substantially higher approval and favorability ratings than his party. He conveys a positive spirit and an appealing, relaxed demeanor, which I doubt can be convincingly quantified. Maybe that’s why he was called “No Drama Obama” toward the end of the ’08 campaign, while McCain was awash in tense theatrics. The wingnuts’ shrill personal attacks against him notwithstanding, my hunch is that Obama’s likeability will serve him well again in November.

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