Editor's note: The following is a slideshow that Hoover Fellow Morris P. Fiorina recently presented at the Hoover Institution about whether likability matters in a presidential election. Fiorina wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on this subject in which he concluded, "Other things being equal, it is no doubt better for a candidate to be liked than disliked, but when other things are not equal, historical data suggest that a candidate’s likability is a relatively minor factor in deciding modern presidential elections." What appears below draws from that op-ed and his recent presentation at Hoover.
So far in the presidential election, Obama seems to be better off than Romney in the likability dimension.
Likability seems to be a key determinant in who wins a presidential election:
In fact, likability—or the lack thereof—seems to account for why Al Gore lost the 2000 election, despite the odds and the forecasts of political scientists. As I've written:
In the 2000 election Al Gore embarrassed political science election forecasters. Although he narrowly won the popular vote, he badly underperformed historical-informed expectations for elections during periods of peace and prosperity. At a major national convention two months before the election a panel of seven forecasters predicted Gore would win between 53 and 60 percent of the two-party vote. Among the post-mortems a prominent explanation for Gore’s negative accomplishment was the personal one: voters simply did not like him. Gore was an arrogant know-it-all who continually reinvented himself, a serial exaggerator, the kind of boy who would remind the teacher that she had forgotten to assign homework.
Political scientists Samuel Abrams, Jeremy Pope and I tried to determine why Gore lost. We turned to the American National Election Studies, which has been asking Americans about their views of presidential candidates since 1952. Citizens are asked to speak freely about what might make them vote for the Republican candidate, and then against him, or for the Democratic candidate, and against him. We coded the respondes into two categories: (1) personal qualities (intelligent/stupid, inspiring/dull, sincere/insincere), and (2) everything else, like public policy positions, voting record, etc.
Our findings are revealed in the graphs below and in this analysis, which I wrote for the New York Times.
Our analysis revealed a number of surprises. What journalists and historians wrote about the candidates after the elections was sometimes considerably at odds with what Americans said about the candidates before the elections. For example, in 1952 the public rated Adlai Stevenson slightly higher than Dwight D. Eisenhower on the personal dimension. Eisenhower was viewed as the strong leader who won the war in Europe. “I like Ike” described 1956 better than 1952. Similarly, in 1960 the public rated Richard M. Nixon ever so slightly higher than John F. Kennedy. As one prominent political scientist wrote at the time, “If the eventual account given by the political histories is that Nixon was a weak candidate in 1960, it will be largely myth.” Kennedy’s charisma developed after the election.
Over all, in the 13 elections between 1952 and 2000, Republican candidates won four of the six in which they had higher personal ratings than the Democrats, while Democratic candidates lost four of the seven elections in which they had higher ratings than the Republicans. Not much evidence of a big likability effect here. In most elections, however, the electorate did not give a large personal edge to either candidate. In four elections they did.
In 1964 the Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson rolled over Barry Goldwater, the second lowest rated Republican on the personal dimension in the thirteen elections. Would a somewhat more likable Republican (Nelson Rockefeller? William Scranton? George Romney?) have done better? Possibly. Better enough to win? Doubtful. Johnson was the highest rated Democrat of the half-century on the record, positions and groups dimension. The 1972 election was the reverse of 1964 with Nixon trampling George S. McGovern, the second lowest rated Democrat in personal terms. But for Nixon, too, the record and positions dimension dominated the personal dimension.
I discuss other elections here.
Of course, likability only has an impact if people are paying attention to the election. Are they?
My (admittedly impressionistic) view is that Romney is in the same ballpark as Nixon or the first President Bush. If Romney loses, it will be because the public believes that Obama has done a good enough job to continue or that Romney has not advanced a credible recovery program. “Voters didn’t like my personality” is a loser’s excuse.Speaking of losers:
Oh yes, Gore may be happy to hear that we found no evidence that his underperformance in 2000 reflected his personal unattractiveness. His personal evaluations were slightly negative and lower than Bush’s, but well within the historical range. Our analysis indicated that Gore lost because he did not get the normal amount of credit for the good economy, because the electorate perceived him as farther to the left than Clinton, and because — unfairly — he was tarnished by Clinton’s personal negatives.
Morris P. Fiorina is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Wendt Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. An expert on elections, public opinion, and the US Congress, his research focuses on legislative and electoral processes with an emphasis on the ways in which political institutions and procedures facilitate or distort the representation of citizen preferences. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences.