It’s put-up or shut-up time for the Romney campaign. With a little more than 40 days before Election Day, most nationwide polls show a neck-and-neck race. The problem is the president isn’t elected by one large national constituency but by the electors representing their states, and Barack Obama is leading his Republican opponent in some must-win swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Virginia. This has elephants frantic about how to shake up the campaign to make Americans like Mitt more. This is a misspent effort; Gov. Romney doesn’t need to be liked to win.
According to Morris Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a political science professor at Stanford University, likable personal qualities aren’t necessarily significant to getting elected president. For example, as he explained at a Hoover media colloquium at Stanford on Monday, “In 1996, people knew Bill Clinton was a sleazeball but they thought he was doing a good job as president.” Likewise in 1972, “Richard Nixon was never considered Mr. Personality,” but his track record, positions on the issues and reputation for competence led voters to reelect Tricky Dick with 49 states, over 60 percent of the electorate and the widest margin of the popular vote in history.
The point of this visit with the ghost of elections past is to warn against getting bogged down worrying about what people think of a candidate as a human being. Campaign advisors need to focus on developing the impression in voters’ minds that their guy will be a competent national leader based on his experience, record and positions on the issues people care about. A reputation is burnished once in office, and that image can be constructed based on success that thoroughly transforms what Americans previously thought of the man as a candidate.
As Mr. Fiorina reminds, the Ronald Reagan of 1980 was not yet the bold, visionary Cold Warrior who took on the Soviet Union and won; he was considered by many to be a fringe and even dangerous ideologue. According to data about voter views of presidential aspirants going back to 1952 from the American National Election Studies, the Gipper of 1980 was saddled with the lowest rating regarding personal qualities of any candidate until Slick Willy dragged the measurement to record lows.
Legends like Reagan aren’t made over night, and they’re not primarily based on winning a personal popularity contest but are grounded in substance. The takeaway for Mr. Romney is to not squander precious time on superficial distractions; there’s no need to wear earth tones to soften any hard edges. “If Romney loses,” Mr. Fiorina concluded in the June 7 New York Times, “it will be because the public believes that Obama has done a good enough job to continue or that Romney has not advanced a credible recovery program.” The challenge for the challenger is to impart that his experience as a corporate turnaround specialist at Bain Capital, his record as governor of Massachusetts and his policy positions are what America needs.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the new book "Bowing to Beijing" (Regnery, 2011).
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