It has become a common refrain in journalistic and political circles to describe the winner of close presidential contests as winning due to voters “wanting to have a beer with the president.” Forgetting for the moment a lot of women don’t like beer or men for that matter, nor vote on this issue, this idea has taken deep root in political circles. Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans increasingly fret in state and federal contests when their candidate’s favorable numbers go up and down.
A point of clarification for those who may need it. Personal favorability ratings are quite different then job approval numbers. The factors that go into favorability numbers are as much psychological as political. It is not necessarily something we even think about. It can be a gut-reaction made at one moment in time that does not change. So one can oppose the president of the opposite party and disapprove of his job performance yet have a personally favorable view of the man. Job approval of the president depends more on the political context and your ideological beliefs. Yet the proof on whether elections hinge on personal favorability numbers is yet to be found.
No strong correlation to date has been found between an incumbent president or challenger winning the White House based on personal favorability numbers. Instead the evidence for such beliefs is far more anecdotal. In the 80’s Reagan connected with voters because of his forceful actions and speeches while Carter was best remembered for his “Malaise speech in 79. In 84 Reagan faced a white-collar Northeastern liberal who related to people almost as well as John Kerry did in 04. In 88 H.W. Bush faced the same thing except Bush did not relate well to people either It did help when his challenger gave a horrific answer on what he would do if his family was killed. In 92 Bill Clinton defeated H.W by connecting with conservatively rural voters. Ditto in 96 when the GOP ran a pitiful moderate excuse for a candidate in Bob Dole.
Yet in 2000 both Al Gore and G.W. Bush were popular with voters. Of course Bush ending up winning a contested election. The belief that candidates who win the battle of “the president voters want to have a beer with” was revived mightily in 2004. It seemed pundits and journalists were at a loss to explain how Bush won the election with sub-par approval ratings and lost key suburbs across the nation. This helped them thus explain how Bush won. Nevermind it was not grounded in fact but yet more anecdotal evidence.
In fact, this theory showed strong signs of life in 2008. Barack Obama won a landslide election by bringing out voters of all ages and stripes due to his hopeful message and youth. It yet again helped journalists and pundits explain how Obama cruised into the WH. But this forgets that Obama was running in an environment where the market had tanked over 5,000 points, the economy was shedding jobs at a massive rate and all under the incumbent party.
What elections are determined by goes far deeper than personal favorability ratings. Job approval, the state of the economy and the pertinent issues of the time all have more statistically verifiable impact on a race. Look at the 2000 presidential race. By the end of his term Bill Clinton had close to a 60% approval rating and the economy was booming. His VP Al Gore benefitted from these numbers and almost won despite running a poor campaign. In 2004 Bush had sub-par approval ratings (barely above 50% on election day) yet won because the economy was humming along and he ran an excellent campaign (okay, Karl Rove did).
Of course having a horrific personal favorability number is a bad thing. If voters personally dislike you what are the odds they back you at the ballot box? Not good I bet. Campaigns spend millions on demonizing their opposition in an effort to drive up their unfavorables. The core of this belief is that voters go with their feelings and not their heads. If only this were true. There are numerous examples of cases where a candidate or incumbent spent big on driving home a negative message about their opposition but lost. The counter would be there are numerous cases where it has worked.
Both are of course true depending on the race, candidates and a whole host of other factors. But favorability numbers are yet one factor in how a voter voters. Voters are far more likely to back or oppose a candidate based on the national mood, candidate/incumbent’s job approval numbers or ideology. All correlate far more strongly to how a voter will act in the ballot box than favorability numbers.
Case in point. Let’s take a look at the 2004 presidential exit polls taken from CNN. Ideologically liberals broke 85%-13% for Kerry over Bush. Bush won conservatives 84%-15%. Moderates who tend to swing backed Kerry 54%-45%. Among those who did not decide who to vote for until the end Kerry won them 53%-44%. Bush easily won evangelicals and Protestants while Kerry won atheists and Jews. On job approval those who strongly approved of Bush on election day backed him 94%-5%, somewhat approve 83%-15%. Among those who somewhat disapproved they backed Kerry 18%-80% and among those who strongly disapproved they backed Kerry 97%-2%. Among partisans the connection was also easy to see.
This example is not to say all voting patterns stay static. Look at how the GOP won women for the first time in a decade in 2010. And yet women have now swung back to the Democrats as the economy has receded as the pertinent issue o them (free birth control is apparently) But there are far more numerous factors that affect a vote then a gut reaction about a candidate/incumbent.
And that brings us to the 2012 presidential race. Obama has maintained respectable favorability numbers yet sub-par approval ratings. Meanwhile likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney has high unfavorable numbers compared to the president. Yet if one looks closely at the polls they see an inconsistency. Romney is running well ahead of his favorability numbers in surveys in head-to-head match-ups against the president. This is for a whole host of factors but it points to a key point both campaigns and the media should be aware of. Depending on the election and its context favorability numbers only go so far.
Both the Romney and Obama campaigns are sure to spend millions and millions on winning the “guy who relates with voters” better war. But in the end 2012 is a defining election. We can drown in a mountain of debt or right the fiscal ship. We can let the government continue to grow, become more intrusive or we can put a stop to it. And we can either continue to have a stalled economy or cutting red tape and needless regulation to allow it to grow again. These are the things voters will ultimately decide 2012 on. What was it a famous man once said back in the Great Depression? Oh yes, “When your neighbor is out of work it is a recession. When you are out of work it is a depression.” So true, and it could decide the 2012 presidential race.