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Santorum, Romney, Obama and the Merits of "Likeability"

Santorum, Romney, Obama and the Merits of "Likeability"

By Alexis Simendinger - February 22, 2012


In October 2006, shortly before Rick Santorum lost his bid for re-election to the Senate by the largest margin ever recorded by a losing GOP incumbent senator, his unfavorable ratings in Pennsylvania had soared to heights never before seen in the state’s Keystone Poll.

Forty-six percent of Pennsylvania voters viewed Santorum unfavorably -- a gloomy surge of nine points in just one month. Back then, Santorum was unable to draw Pennsylvania voters toward his candidacy, and his support in the state barely budged in the 18 months leading up to his defeat by Democrat Bob Casey.

Fast-forward to 2012, and Santorum, a Catholic, is attracting hosannas among supporters for his earnestness and socially conservative beliefs. After his wins in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, he barreled ahead of Mitt Romney in polls leading toward important contests on Feb. 28 and in March. Gallup pointed out last week that GOP voters do not believe Santorum is more electable than Romney, but they think Santorum is more like them and shares their beliefs.

Against Romney (the candidate described by President Obama’s campaign team as “weird” and having “no core”), Santorum has been earning high marks among Republicans for his “likeability” and his outspoken religious convictions.

Likeability, according to pollsters and political scientists, is always important in presidential races, but it is an especially telling assessment among voters during primary contests.

Primaries, more than in general elections, are when voters sort through candidates who are often more alike than different when it comes to issues and experience. Candidates’ personal traits and voters’ evaluations of what they see and hear can matter more in this stage than primary contenders’ positions on issues. Voters decide if candidates are friendly, down to earth, easygoing, and whether they have a life story to which regular folks can relate.

On the Democratic side, President Obama croons a few bars into a microphone, and commiserates about being a dad to young daughters.

To invite connections with average voters, Santorum tells moving tales about his coal miner grandfather, and Romney rhetorically hugs Michigan’s lakes, cars and trees.

What is “very different territory than what we’ve seen in the past,” said Doug Usher, managing director of Purple Insights, a political consulting firm, is the upended condition of Romney’s favorable/unfavorable ratings -- considered a close proxy for voters’ sense of candidates’ likeability.

“Not only is Romney upside down by 10 or more points,” he told RCP, “but if you look back to general elections and candidates who won, they didn’t have these levels of unfavorable ratings.”

That is an ominous sign for Romney -- and for Santorum, too.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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