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Candidates can't forget intangible of 'likability'

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

Both the George W. Bush and the John Kerry campaigns should remember political history and note that in 1984, President Ronald Reagan won re-election and defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale not based on any one issue, but more on a vital intangible.

Yes, Iraq, the economy, the war on terrorism and many other issues are critical to who will win the presidential race in November. And yes, in recent weeks, many polls have shown Bush's public support in decline as he continues to struggle with the particulars of today's big-ticket issues of international and public policy.

But a key intangible category remains, and it's one that I believe ultimately decides major elections. Currently, the president trails his Democratic opponent in this area too, but there is very real hope that he can bounce back by Election Day. The intangible is "likability."

Here is the latest InsiderAdvantage survey of the presidential election:

Q. If the presidential election were held today, for whom would you vote?

George W. Bush: 43 percent;

John Kerry: 43 percent;

Ralph Nader/Other: 4 percent;

Undecided/Don't Know: 10 percent.

These results are consistent with some surveys that show the race dead even, but admittedly out of step with several that show Kerry in the lead. Given that our polling of the race has shown the lead change hands several times, this result is no shock to me.

What does shock me is the reply to the following question posed to likely voters:

Q. Who is more likable?

George W. Bush: 44 percent;

John Kerry: 48 percent;

Undecided/Don't Know: 8 percent.

Both questions were part of a national survey conducted May 22-24 with our research associates at The Marketing Workshop. The poll sampled 500 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

We had asked the same likability question last month, and Kerry was on top then too. While at first glance this should seem to give the Kerry camp cause for celebration and the Bush side great disappointment, there may be more to this seemingly frivolous question of likability than some might guess. Indeed, it might offer some critical hints of how the race ultimately will shake out.

First, the importance of "likability." I'm confident that most who have been candidates themselves, or have worked as campaign strategists, will agree that it's a rare Election Day in which the less-liked candidate actually wins. There are exceptions to this rule, but not many. If an incumbent is intensely disliked, then even a generally poorly regarded and comparatively little-known challenger can win by virtue of the fact that he or she is seen as the lesser of two evils. This isn't likely to be the case this fall, because both Bush and Kerry will be fully identified in most voters' minds by November.

This begs the questions of why Kerry is currently viewed as the more likable of the two candidates and whether he can maintain that status through the election campaign.

Kerry's likability certainly can't be attributed to great warmth or charisma. Even longtime Democratic insiders in Washington who are working hard for a Kerry victory admit their man doesn't inspire warm and fuzzy feelings among the electorate. His somewhat aloof and aristocratic style, coupled with his appearance of a rather weathered, patrician politician, does little to suggest that Kerry has the potential to become the nation's next political "American Idol."

But Bush has his own likability problems, and sometimes they seem endless. For one, there is an image of the president seemingly amplified with each passing day that he is arrogant. Whether justified or not, this notion quite clearly has taken hold with a substantial segment of voters.

But what seems Bush's downfall could easily turn back in his favor. After all, Kerry's "Dukakis-like" lack of warmth could easily be exploited by the GOP. They could gear future television ads more toward "introducing" America to John Kerry the seemingly cold and aristocratic politician rather than focusing on the Democrat's policy positions, a strategy that so far has yielded few gains for the Bush campaign.

To complement this approach, the Bush White House and campaign could concentrate on reaching out to appeal to the American people more on terms they understand, instead of taking on all comers with a "Look at us, we're the White House" attitude.

This goes for everyone from the communications staff, to hotshot Cabinet members like Donald "I'm Too Old To Apologize" Rumsfeld, to (sometimes) the president himself.

The Bush campaign would do well to remember that while many Americans were not wild about all of Reagan's policies as his 1984 re-election bid approached, they nevertheless found him far more likable than his opponent. The president must appeal to those same instincts of the people if he is to win.

Matt Towery is chair of InsiderAdvantage, which works in conjunction with The Marketing Workshop to conduct polls for his syndicated column. He is based in Jacksonville, Fla.



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