Mitt Romney is the most unpopular major-party presidential nominee in recent U.S. history.
As far as I can tell, there is simply no precedent for Romney’s sustained favorability slump. Back in March, I dove into the polling archives and discovered that the former Massachusetts governor “boast[ed] the worst primary-season favorable-unfavorable split of any major-party nominee of the last 36 years (at least)”—and that candidates who, like Romney, generated net-negative favorable ratings in the spring of an election year (Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, Bob Dole in 1996) almost always lost in the fall. The only exception was Bill Clinton, the so-called Comeback Kid.
At the time, Republicans were predicting that Romney would follow in Clinton’s footsteps (rather than, say, Dole’s). Wait until the convention, they argued. Wait until all the Santorumites and Newtheads rally around Mitt in Tampa. Wait until the country sees him speak. Romney’s underwater ratings will evaporate shortly thereafter, and he’ll never look back.
This model certainly worked for Clinton—according to Gallup, he managed to transform what was a 41-49 favorable-unfavorable rating as of July 8, 1992 into a 62-25 split 10 days later, immediately after the Democratic National Convention in New York. In other words, Clinton’s popularity shot up 45 percentage points pretty much overnight.
And so, given that least one former nominee had used a convention to dig himself out of a big favorability hole, I figured that now, five days after Tampa, was the right time to check back in and see if Romney’s own popularity problem had finally cleared itself up.
Unfortunately for the GOP, it hasn’t.
The good (if predictable) news is that Romney’s favorables have increased. In March, I wrote that “right now, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum’s supporters are telling pollsters they dislike Romney. But after Mitt clinches the nomination and the party unites around him, many of his former foes will miraculously see the light.” At the time, Romney’s favorable rating was hovering around 37 percent. Today it’s pushing 44 percent. A number of Republicans who were telling pollsters that they didn’t like Romney in the heat of primary season are now telling the same pollsters that they like him fine.
The bad news is that Romney is still underwater, meaning that more voters continue to see him unfavorably than favorably. Of the 38 polls released since July 23, 25 have registered a net-negative rating for the Republican nominee, often by as many as 10 percentage points. Only nine have registered a net-positive rating. As of September 5, Romney’s average split was 45.4 unfavorable to 44.1 percent favorable.
Context is important here.
At first glance, Republicans might be tempted to cheer these numbers. After all, Romney’s favorable-unfavorable gap is smaller than it was in March, when the candidate was underwater by whopping 10 percentage points. But the reason this gap has shrunk is not because Romney’s unfavorables are declining. Again, it’s because Republicans have rallied around their nominee, dragging his favorable ratings out of their primary-season doldrums. The truth is that Romney’s average unfavorable rating is actually higher right now than it was at any point between April 5 and July 2. Since late July, it has topped 50 percent 15 times. Becoming more unpopular as the race goes on is not the mark of a successful candidate.
Making matters worse is the fact Romney just starred in his very own national political convention. This is usually the point in a presidential campaign when the nominee’s popularity reaches its peak. According to Gallup, George H.W. Bush weighed in at 39 percent favorable, 25 percent unfavorable right after the 1988 Republican convention in Houston, and Michael Dukakis generated similar stats shortly after the Democratic shindig in Atlanta (38-19). Four years later, in July 1992, Clinton’s post-New York split was, again, 62-25. Al Gore registered a hugely positive rating after Los Angeles (64-30), as did George W. Bush post-Philadelphia (67-28), John Kerry post-Boston (57-37), John McCain post-Minneapolis (63-33), and Barack Obama post-Denver (62-35). Even Bob Dole clawed his way into a positive territory after the 1996 Republican fete in San Diego (32-29).
In short, Romney is the only nominee since at least 1988 who, after three straight days of balloons, banners, and fawning speeches on primetime TV, couldn’t manage to convince more voters to like him than dislike him. In this he most closely resembles an earlier challenger, Walter Mondale, whose favorables actually fell after the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco.
Popularity isn’t everything. But it’s something, especially in a presidential election. If Romney’s current post-convention-yet-still-underwater favorables represent the high point of his appeal—and if past is prelude, they will—then he’s in serious trouble.
Voters may not love President Obama. But nothing that has happened in the last few decades of American politics suggests that they will be eager to replace him, come Election Day, with someone they can’t even bring themselves to like.