WASHINGTON — The economy is in the tank and hopes for quick improvement are dim. Most people don't like the direction the country is headed and many blame President Obama. And his GOP rival scores better on the top issues. So why isn't Obama doing worse in the polls?
One likely reason: Voters like him more than Mitt Romney.
Obama's job approval ratings long ago plummeted from his halcyon postelection days. But the president's favorability — the catchall measure that pollsters say reflects voters' gut feelings about a politician — has been resilient. Despite a recession, a sluggish jobless recovery, an oil spill, an unpopular healthcare law and a string of ugly tussles with Congress, Obama's favorability is 54%, according to a recent USA Today-Gallup poll. Respondents were essentially divided on Romney, who had a 46% favorability rating. When asked about likability, respondents favored Obama, 60% to 30%.
Included in that barometer is a group of personal traits more consequential than just being nice. Obama gets high marks on honesty and trustworthiness. And most voters say he shares their values and cares about people like them.
And, by some accounts, voters really like the president. Two-thirds of voters surveyed recently by the Wall Street Journal and NBC said they liked Obama personally.
Romney, the unofficial Republican nominee, was personally liked by 47%.
"Basically, it looks like Romney's personality is holding him back and Obama's likability is helping him," said Jeffrey M. Jones, managing editor for the Gallup Poll. "It seems frivolous, but it matters."
How much it matters is the subject of debate among political scientists. Pollsters note that favorability ratings have been an accurate predictor in the last five presidential elections, including the virtual tie of 2000. Vice President Al Gore went into the election with 56% of voters having a favorable impression;George W. Bush was at 55%.
But favorability isn't the most precise reading of how people feel about a candidate's personality because it can be swayed by partisan leanings and other biases. When looking more narrowly at whom voters just plain like best, it's not at all clear that presidential elections are popularity contests, some observers say. Theories about voters picking the candidate they would like to crack open a beer with are "a lot of noise," said Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
"It's always better to be liked than not liked," Fiorina said. "But it won't save you."
It is not unusual that the number of people who say they view Obama favorably is outpacing the number who say they like the work he's doing. People tend to like their president.
Asking people to vote for the candidate they may not like more but who they think will do a better job is, for now, the Romney campaign's task. In several recent polls, the former Massachusetts governor and former chief executive of a private equity firm got strong marks on how he would handle the issues voters care about most. A Gallup survey from mid-July showed Romney with the edge over Obama on creating jobs, handling taxes and lowering the deficit.
But the same poll found that voters considered Obama more likable than Romney by a 2-to-1 ratio. And half said he better understands the challenges Americans face in their daily lives, compared with 39% who said Romney does.
The Obama campaign has pounced on that gap. Nearly every campaign speech and television ad charges that Romney's tax proposals favor the rich or notes his considerable wealth. TV ads released last week aimed to capitalize on Obama's personality edge, showing him speaking directly to the camera.
Likability doesn't substitute for job approval, Obama advisor David Axelrod said, "but it's also true, especially when you're voting for president, that people understand they're going to be living with this person for the next four years, and they want to have someone they relate to as a person and who they feel comfortable with, and that's always been the case. It's not unimportant."
Romney senior strategist Neil Newhouse downplayed that factor: "Likability doesn't fix the economy. Likability isn't helping the middle class."
And Newhouse pointed to the Republican National Convention in late August as a likely venue for showcasing Romney's personal strengths. "People don't really know Mitt Romney yet," he said. "By election day, I think they're going to really get a feel for who he is, what drives him."
There is precedent in Romney's favor, notes Fiorina, who has studied the role of personal positives in presidential elections. Contrary to lore, it was President Carter, the Sunday school teacher with the smile, who had the personality edge in 1980 but lost to Ronald Reagan. And 20 years before, Richard Nixon's personality was viewed just slightly more positively thanJohn F. Kennedy's.
In the 13 elections from 1952 to 2000, only four saw a major personality gap, Fiorina found. Americans voted for the less-liked candidate in two — Clinton in 1996 and Reagan in 1980.
Fiorina posits that outside events can trump popularity, which means Obama's edge helps him but offers no safety net. The intensity of concerns about the economy may drown out other concerns.
"My mechanic might be a peach of a guy," he said, "but if he doesn't find out what's wrong with the car, I go somewhere else."