Politics Counts: Romney’s Tricky Likeability Landscape

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Going into this campaign Mitt Romney’s job was never going to be simple. It’s not easy to unseat an incumbent president – even one who has presided over a struggling economy. Voters typically have a long checklist of factors in mind when they consider whether a candidate is White House material.

Throughout his presidential run, however, the GOP nominee has had one nagging problem: the somewhat squishy concept of “likeability.”

Since January the number of people in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll who said they have “positive” feelings toward Mr. Romney has been stuck between 31% and 38%. His “negative” numbers have been higher in every poll.

That trend continued in the poll released this week, across almost all geographic regions, age groups and income levels. Currently 38% say they have positive feelings about Mr. Romney while 43% say they have negative feelings. For President Obama, 48% have positive feelings, while 42% have negative feelings. And that should cause some serious pause at Romney campaign headquarters –for a few reasons.

First, going back to 1992, the major-party candidate with the higher “positive” rating has won the White House every time. People simply find it hard to vote for a candidate they don’t like – or that they don’t like as much as the other guy. It takes something big to override that difference.

Second, Mr. Romney’s positive feelings number didn’t change pre- and post-convention. It was static at 38%. In other words, the three-day reintroduction of Mr. Romney in Tampa didn’t change how people feel about him.

We’ve been skeptical in this space about convention bounces. They are often ephemeral. But the conventions do give each candidate a chance to sit at the center of the news cycle for a week as surrogates sing their praises. Remember the warm portraits of Mr. Romney at his convention and the humanizing talk of his salad days – Ann Romney’s speech highlighting tuna and pasta meals and eating on an ironing board.

And even though their TV ratings are declining, conventions give each candidate a chance to speak directly to the American people with their acceptance speeches. Rarely do the nominees get another stage like that. Even now, the media are preparing for the next turn in the election season, the presidential debates where the candidates have much less control over how they are portrayed.

It may be hard to win a voter over with a political convention, but candidates can hope to come away more personally appealing to voters. Apparently that didn’t happen for Mr. Romney in Tampa. For the rest of this Politics Counts column, please visit the Wall Street Journal's website.