Obama vs. Romney: The Popularity Contest

By Bob Burnett

At the start of the Democratic Convention, polls showed Barack Obama tied with Mitt Romney. That’s surprising because many Americans do not look favorably on the Obama Administration; they hold the President responsible for high unemployment and trust Romney to fix the problem. Nonetheless, voters expect Obama to win, because he’s more popular.

The most reliable political prognosticator, Nate Silver, expects Obama to get 50.9% of the vote (he received 52.9% in 2008) and 305.5 electoral votes (365 in 208). Silver says Obama has a 73.1% chance of winning.

If the President does prevail in November, it won’t be because of the economy. The US is experiencing a weak recovery from the devastating 2008 recession (GDP growth is a tepid 1.7%) and unemployment is high (8.1%). Even though America’s growth rate is greater than that of Europe (but less than that of China and India), citizens are not satisfied. Consumer confidence is low and recent polls show 62% of respondents believe that the US is “on the wrong track.” Not surprisingly, 52% of poll respondents believe that Mitt Romney “would do a better job handling the economy and unemployment.”

Romney hasn’t done a good job articulating his vision for the next four years. In his acceptance speech, he presented his minimalist five-step plan to create “12 million jobs”: open all of America to fossil-fuel excavation; initiate an education voucher system; forge new trade agreements; cut the deficit; and reduce business taxes and regulations.

Fortunately for the President, Americans continue to blame George W. Bush rather than Barack Obama for the bad economy – but the gap is narrowing; more citizens blame Obama now than they did in 2009. Most voters probably agree with San Francisco Chronicle business columnist Andrew Ross, who summarized the reasons the weak economy makes the President vulnerable: the administration underestimated the depth of the recession and the systemic nature of job loss; the 2009 stimulus package wasn’t big enough; and Obama lost focus on the economy when he shifted his attention to health care.

Given that the economy is languishing, many Americans place at least some of the blame on the current occupants of the White House, and Republicans are spending millions of dollars dinging Obama, it’s surprising that the President is doing as well as he is. That’s because voters like Barack Obama more than Mitt Romney.

Although polls differ, most draw the same conclusion as the Pew Research poll that found Romney’s unfavorable rating (52%) far exceeded his favorable (37%) – Obama’s unfavorable rating (42%) was less than his favorable (50%). A recent American Enterprise Institute poll helped explain these findings: Americans like Obama because of his character and the perception he “cares about people;” they like Romney because of his business background and the fact he’s “not Obama.” Barack has empathy; he believes in the people. Mitt has a resume; he believes in corporations.

The candidate that voters liked the most has won the last five Presidential elections. In 1992, this was Bill Clinton (vs. George H.W. Bush), in 1996 Clinton again (vs. Bob Dole), in 2000 George W. Bush (vs. Al Gore); in 2004 Bush again (vs. John Kerry); and in 2008 Barack Obama (vs. John McCain).

If he is going to prevail on Nov. 6, Romney has to accomplish two tasks. He has to tell voters what he would do differently than Obama to create meaningful jobs. And, he has to make voters like him. Romney didn’t do either at the Republican convention. He had his chance in prime time to boost his standing but got no bounce from his Tampa convention speech.

In October, Romney will debate Obama on three occasions. The first debate, on Oct. 3, will be devoted to domestic policy. That’s probably Romney’s best chance to convince voters that he is more likable than Obama and has a real plan to create jobs.

Meanwhile, Republicans will inundate swing voters with an unprecedented media campaign blasting the President. That’s unlikely to convince independents to vote for Romney but it may disgust them enough to keep them away from the polls (the major thrust of the GOP 2012 campaign seems to be to discourage voters from exercising their franchise).

Democrats had a successful convention, capped off by Obama’s stirring speech – “I am hopeful because of you.” Next he has to do well in the debates. Finally, on Nov. 6, Democrats must do a good job getting out the vote. Romney can win, but he has his work cut out for him because Obama is more likable. Of the two, Obama is the one Americans would rather sit next to on a plane. Obama’s the candidate with empathy; the one offering a positive vision for the next four years.

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley, Calif., writer and a retired Silicon Valley executive. Email bobburnett@comcast.net.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2012



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