The Likeability Factor

The chattering classes may have declared last night's Nashville debate a draw, but the public seems to have disagreed. Every single scientific poll released since the curtain closed, in fact, has proclaimed Barack Obama the evening's overwhelming winner. (All of these surveys adhered to standard polling practice--phone calls, representative sampling--and none were conducted online.) There's CNN, which shows Obama clobbering McCain 54 percent] to 34 percent among viewers nationwide. There's CBS, which gives the Illinois senator a 40 percent to 26 percent advantage among uncommitteds. SurveyUSA has a 56 percent to 26 percent pro-Obama split, while independents at thought the Democrat outperformed the Republican 52 percent to 34 percent. Obama even won the Fox News focus group. The defense rests.

Unfortunately for Obama, there's absolutely no historical correlation between winning such surveys and winning the White House. In fact, the candidate who performs better in the postdebate polls actually tends to perform worse on Election Day. In 1984, voters thought Walter Mondale crushed Ronald Reagan 54-35 in the first debate and declared their second face-off a draw. But Reagan still went on to carry 49 states. Michael Dukakis won 1988's only matchup with George H.W. Bush, 38-29--and still managed to lose by seven million votes on Nov. 8. Four years later, neither Bush nor Bill Clinton topped the majority of postdebate polls. That honor went to--you guessed it--Ross Perot. And both Al Gore and John Kerry outperformed George W. Bush, with the Massachusetts Democrat winning two of 2004's three encounters by more than 13 points.

That said, there's good news for Obama in the numbers. Over at the New Republic, Christopher Orr claims that "no candidate who has been substantially less likeable on television than his opponent has won the presidency in over thirty years." He happens to be correct. In 1984, Reagan struck voters as about 20 percent more likeable than Mondale. Bush defeated Dukakis largely because he "triumphed in the congeniality competition"--and later lost to Clinton largely because he didn't. After the Oct. 17, 2000 debate, voters rated Bush the more likable candidate, 60-30; four years later, Dubya whipped Kerry 52-41 in the same department. In other words, the candidate who won the debates may not have won the subsequent election--but the candidate who came off as most congenial almost always did.

This bodes extremely well for Obama. According to the CNN poll, viewers found the Illinois Democrat more likeable last night by a margin of 65 to 28 percent--a far larger spread than either Reagan, Bush, Clinton or W. ever enjoyed in similar surveys. History, it seems, is on Obama's side. Presidential elections are a search--at least in part--for the man or woman voters feel most comfortable inviting into their living rooms for the next four (or eight) years; people don't tend to choose candidates they don't like. In addition, Obama's likeability serves to "undercu[t] McCain's credibility," as Slate's John Dickerson notes. "It exposes the picture McCain has been painting of Obama in the last few days as a caricature." That's why a focus group of undecided Coloradans awarded Obama a staggering 80/14 favorability rating at the end of the evening--and broke for him over McCain (whose favorability rating stalled at 54/36) by 16 points.

Will Obama win the election on amiability alone? Absolutely not. But it's one more reason McCain can't be liking his chances.