Monday, May 3, 2004

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry has a serious likability problem, with many voters seeing him as cold, aloof and distant, according to focus groups, recent polls and election analysts.

The complaint has dogged the Massachusetts senator throughout his political career, but it has gotten more attention in recent weeks as he undergoes deeper scrutiny in the press and from political pundits. Pollsters say when compared with President Bush on a likability scale, the president leads, often by large margins.

“It is a problem for Kerry. When you are talking about selecting a leader, barring an unforeseen circumstance, you have to like that leader. Whether it is an insurmountable problem remains to be seen,” independent pollster John Zogby said.

“Clearly, that is bolstering Bush at the moment, his likability. A majority of Americans like him, though it’s not as wide as it was,” Mr. Zogby said.

When a CBS News/New York Times poll asked 1,042 adults last week to rate the “likability” of the two candidates, Mr. Bush was rated as likable by 57 percent, as compared with Mr. Kerry’s 48 percent.

Mr. Kerry’s public persona also appears to be a problem for him among some of his party’s base constituencies, particularly rank-and-file labor union members.

Late last month, the AFL-CIO conducted focus group interviews with undecided union members in St. Louis and Philadelphia who said that Mr. Kerry “doesn’t warm anybody up” and that Mr. Bush was viewed as a more likable and stronger leader.

The focus group interviews suggested that Mr. Kerry’s perceived aloofness was an obstacle in appealing to union voters. Mr. Bush won 35 percent of union voters in 2000, despite union leaders’ near-uniform endorsements of Democrat Al Gore.

Mr. Kerry’s personality also might be a problem for him in the months to come with Hispanic voters, many of whom like the president on a personal and visceral level, even if they don’t support all of his policies.

“Bush is actually liked in the Hispanic community. He comes across as someone who understands the community. For Democrats, that comes across as a challenge,” said Maria Cardona, director of the Hispanic Project at the New Democrat Network.

“But it is still very early in the campaign, and Kerry is just now introducing himself to the Latino community. The more they get to know him and what he stands for and his values, his likability quotient will go up in the community,” Ms. Cardona said.

“I am sure Kerry understands this very well, that he is going to have to make an effort to communicate on a personal level with Hispanics,” she added.

Pollster Frank Luntz said he raised the issue when he conducted focus group surveys of voters for MSNBC in six states earlier this year during the Democratic primaries.

The groups, made up of “swing voters,” described Mr. Kerry as “distant” and as someone who looks “sad” and who rarely smiled or laughed. Mr. Luntz said he has received similar responses in subsequent focus groups.

“Part of what they want to see in a president is someone who they would invite into their living rooms at night, someone who is likable,” he said. “If you are not likable, you will not pass the living-room test.”

One story that has been told about Mr. Kerry’s emotionless personality occurred during the Iowa caucuses campaign when Jim Rasmussen, a former Army Green Beret, told a crowd in Waterloo how the senator saved his life in the Vietnam War.

As political analyst Charlie Cook told the story in a recent article in the National Journal, “Given the power of that rescue story and the fact that the Iowa auditorium was electric with energy, Kerry’s performance after Rasmussen took the stage can only be described as mediocre. He didn’t bomb, but he failed to take advantage of the moment. He seemed too cool, too aloof, too distant for his own good.”

Pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center thinks that “likability is an issue, but the bigger issue is performance, whether the president has done a good job and whether the challenger is an acceptable alternative.”

“Personality plays more of a role in an election where we are not dealing with an incumbent or we are not dealing with big issues, when the country is not confronted with big problems,” he said.

Mr. Luntz agrees with that assessment. “Likability mattered more in 2000 than it does now because times were not as serious as they are today. The mood of America is much more serious.”

Even so, he adds, “likability matters. It’s not the most important factor, or in the top five, but in an election this close, it could be the difference.”

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