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Asher '15: The Super Bowl test

You're in the locker room after your team just won the Super Bowl when the phone rings. You pick up. Who do you want on the other line congratulating you: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

I call this scenario "the Super Bowl Test." A well-known Zogby/Williams Identity Poll taken of undecided voters in 2004 found that 57 percent of them would rather have had a beer with former President George W. Bush than with former Democratic candidate John Kerry. This has since become a widely used litmus test for presidential candidates' likability that gauges voter comfort. An Aug. 28 Associated Press headline makes the argument that "likability is about a lot more than having a beer," because it includes traits such as empathy and how much voters trust a given candidate to fix the country's problems. As a solution, I've come up with a test of my own - the Super Bowl test - that I think captures what Americans tend to look for in their presidential candidates. An alternate test is especially important considering Romney doesn't drink.

However you define likability, it's one of the areas in which Obama has a significant edge over Romney. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 54 percent of respondents find Obama "likable," whereas only 31 percent of respondents said the same about Romney. This amounts to a 23-point edge for the president. The good news for Romney in the same poll, however, is that 52 percent of respondents said he would better handle the economy than Obama, as opposed to 43 percent who said the opposite. Obama bests Romney in areas of personality the poll covers - such as honesty and ability to stand up to special interests - but the two are in a statistical dead heat in terms of their ability to effectively manage the government.

In an election where 65 percent of Americans still cite economic issues as the most important problem facing the country, one would expect that the election would favor the candidate voters judge as better able to turn things around. But Obama has either led or tied Romney in nearly every polling average since Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee. What gives?

Likability is important to voters. What might not be immediately evident, though, is just how important it is. In an Aug. 9 Politico piece, Roger Simon wrote, "The more likable candidate wins. Not always, but almost always." Looking at past presidential races, this rule mostly seems to hold true, especially keeping the "Super Bowl test" in mind. Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter, then Walter Mondale in 1984. George H. W. Bush over Michael Dukakis, and subsequently the endlessly charismatic Bill Clinton over Bush - and yes, "Dubya" over Kerry in 2004. 

One could obviously argue there have been exceptions. But if history is any indicator, likability seems to be the best advantage a candidate could have against his challenger, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the election. As Simon observed in his Politico column, "shouldn't Romney be ahead by now?" If things are as bad as people seem to think they are, why wouldn't Americans overwhelmingly want to make a change?

Elections are never about a single issue or a single variable. The economy is worse in some parts of the country than others, and swing voters aren't one big homogeneous blob of people - they are individuals who look for different things in candidates. Nevertheless, Obama seems to be running consistently ahead of where most analysts feel he should be, and the best data-driven explanation - if one exists - is his personal appeal to most Americans. There are obviously other major differences between the two candidates and their beliefs, but in light of the historical precedents and the popularity contest that is the 24-hour news cycle, likability seems to be the most salient one.

I'm not saying likability is, in actuality, the best indicator of which candidate would make a better president. There are plenty of good arguments to be made for electing Romney over Obama - whether or not you buy them - and plenty to be made that voting based on likability has had disastrous effects in the past for our country. But this is the game as it stands today. Beer drinking. The Super Bowl test. If Romney wants to start pulling ahead, he needs to start playing.

 

 

Adam Asher '15 will, in all likelihood, never be on a Super Bowl winning team.




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