David Brooks is so close to getting it right, he can almost taste it. Brooks notes that by a traditional economic analysis, Obama should be losing. The economy is bad. Public perception of the economy is bad. Public perception is that the economy is worse than it was four years ago. And people blame the president for that, at least to some extent.
Brooks credits Obama’s resilience on his “leadership style”. He invents a clever sounding narrative about the “ESPN Man”, as “postfeminist … hypercompetitive, restrained, not given to self-doubt, rarely self-indulgent.” Sorry, David, not buying it.
You want to know why Obama is ahead in the polls, despite being behind on the economy? Likability. Obama’s likability number, that is the percentage of likely voters who tell pollsters that the president is “generally likable” since becoming president, has generally hovered in the upper 50s. Last week, according to Gallup, it was up to 60%. (Romney’s was at 31%.)
What does likability mean? It gets back to something we talk about in the book. Voters tend to vote for candidates for whom they have a positive first reaction. Think of it this way: the more likable a candidate is, the harder that voters will work to try to talk themselves into voting for them. Voters like Obama, and they don’t like Romney. That means that they will look for excuses to vote for Obama and look for excuses to vote against Romney.
That internal logic, conscious or unconscious, ends up going something like this: “So yeah, the economy is bad, but maybe that’s Congress’ fault, or the fault of the big banks, or maybe Obama will get better his second term. Besides, is Romney (Romney? Really?) the kind of guy who would do better?”
From that perspective, this election isn’t a toss-up, as Brooks predicts. From that perspective, Romney is in real trouble, unless some kind of game-changer comes along to dramatically alter people’s perceptions of one or both of them.