by Lowman S. Henry | March 07, 2007

Likeability may determine outcome of ’08 Presidential race

We like to think Presidential campaigns are fought over issues, but in the final analysis the deciding factor is often the personality of the candidate. Voters have a basic need to feel comfortable with their President therefore the likeability factor of the candidates often trumps other considerations.

Ronald Reagan had the highest likeability factor of any recent President, and in some quarters the same can be said for Bill Clinton. Both attracted votes from people who disagreed with their policies – sometimes strongly – but who simply felt more at ease with them personally.

Presidents must appeal to the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln once said. Declaring the nation to be suffering from a “malaise” is not the way to do that as Jimmy Carter learned by giving Reagan, the cheery Irishman the advantage. And voters reacted more positively to Reagan’s “morning in America” theme than they did to Walter Mondale, who had a personality as cold as a Minnesota winter. Bill Clinton also benefited from the likeability factor, especially when one opponent obliged him by looking at his watch during a debate; and the other, although possessed of a disarming sense of humor, was portrayed as dour old Dole.

The flip side to likeability is the animosity engendered by some Presidents. George W. Bush was hamstrung from the start by virtue of losing the popular vote, then claiming the White House through a controversial recount and Electoral College victory. Add in the war in Iraq which by 2004 was already inflaming passions, and the stage was set for Bush became a “divider, not uniter.”

It appeared for a while that hatred would create a majority coalition against George W. Bush, but Democrats engaged in the folly of nominating someone with even less of a likeability factor, a craggy-faced liberal from Boston guaranteed to incite action by the GOP’s conservative.

Republicans expressed great glee over the fact that they were “for” Bush, while Democrats were not so much supportive of their guy as they were against the incumbent President. There was something to be said for that as Bush’s likeability factor coupled with the broad-based unacceptability of Kerry carried the day.

As the 2008 campaign gathers steam, however, the shoe may be on the other foot. The biggest complaint among the conservative base of the Republican Party at the moment is the unsuitability of the three leading contenders for the nomination: U.S. Senator John McCain; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Conservatives can, and do, poke holes in the record of all three front runners and have been consigned to hoping a second tier candidate will break through to the top of the pack, or trying to decide which of the top contenders is the least offensive. There appears to be little of the enthusiasm that animated the GOP ranks during Reagan’s campaigns, or even those mounted by the current President Bush.

Republicans, as were the Democrats of 2004, are now united by hatred and fear of the other party’s probably nominee, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton is possessed of little of the charm that carried her President husband so far, and is in fact facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from Illinois Senator Barak Obama. The fear of a possible Hillary Clinton Presidency is motivating many otherwise disillusioned conservatives to action.

The worst case scenario for Republicans is that one of the current three front-runners ends up with the nomination, and either Obama or former North Carolina Senator John Edwards upsets Clinton for the Democrat nomination. Both Obama and Edwards vastly outpace Hillary in likeability and could put Republicans in exactly the same predicament they themselves were in in 2004.

And we all know how that story ended.