Very few votes are going to be cast on the basis of what Mitt Romney did or didn’t do to John Lauber in 1965. So that, per se, isn’t Romney’s problem. But this is: The story lands as another brick on pile of evidence amassing that he’s just a disagreeable human being. A few days ago I wrote about Barack Obama’s biggest problem, which is that despite all the many areas in which Americans rate him higher than Romney, the one on which they give Romney the edge happens to be pretty important: handling the economy. Now we get to Romney’s biggest problem. The likability factor. He ain’t got it. And he ain’t got much of a way to get it.
Historical question: When is the last time the clearly less likeable candidate beat the clearly more likeable one for the White House? The answer is, a long time. I put the question to Gallup, which didn’t have historical numbers at hand. But doing some noodling around on my own suggests that you have to go back to 1968 to find such a result.
In 2004, George W. Bush generally led the likeable category. Pew emailed me some numbers—they had Bush leading John Kerry on likeability by 47 to 36 percent in September 2004. Interestingly, Kerry caught up and even went ahead after the first debate. But even so, voters judged both very likeable—70 percent for Kerry, and 65 percent for Bush. In 2000, Bush usually topped Al Gore, but not by massive margins. An October 2000 poll gave Bush an 11-point margin. Pew had a nine-point margin for Bush around the same time.
Before then, numbers get a little harder to come by. But crusty old Bob Dole was surely not considered more likeable than Bill Clinton in 1996. The 1992 Clinton-George H.W. Bush matchup was probably close. But just think back over the elections. The “wooden” Michael Dukakis in 1988 wasn’t exactly radiating intense bonhomie. Ronald Reagan was extremely likeable on a personal level to most people. Jimmy Carter had that big smile in 1976. Et cetera. As I say, I would imagine that it’s 1968, when the surly Dick beat the Happy Warrior, although by just a half million votes out of more than 70 million cast. But even Nixon was probably not clearly less likeable than Humphrey. After all, he’d been the vice president, he’d been on the national stage for nearly 20 years; the man definitely had his backers.
Romney, though? This is the biggest washout of modern times, folks. Gallup just this week put the likeability ratings at Obama 60, Romney 31. It’s not that Obama’s number is unusually high. Look back at those Kerry-Bush numbers. Americans are an open-hearted lot, at least presumptively, so they want to like the guy who’s going be the president. But they Do. Not. Like. Mitt. Romney.
It would be more interesting for all of us if there were some great mystery here, but there isn’t. He reeks of privilege. Every time he says something off the cuff he says something obnoxious. Corporations are people, pal. I like firing people. Where on earth did you get those Godforsaken cookies?
He also—and this actually is interesting, because it’s something our normal public discourse does not like to admit or allow for—is way too rich. We’re constantly told that Americans don’t have any class envy, and compared to some European nations they don’t. But even Americans have limits. A few million, even $50 million; okay. But a quarter billion dollars? A house with an elevator . . . for the cars? It also matters to people how the money was made. It’s okay to be worth a gajillion dollars if you’re Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and have made everyone’s lives more interesting and cooler. But what’s Mitt Romney done? Helped give us Domino’s Pizza.
Even so, Romney might still pass muster, but he has no grasp of the one crucial reality of class in America: you can be filthy rich as long as you don’t look or act like it. Gates doesn’t comb his hair, much. Jobs wore sneakers. Romney just looks too pressed. Even when he’s wearing those jeans. You can look at Romney on television and practically sense how he smells—of costly ablutions whose brand names the rest of us probably don’t even know. And he acts relentlessly rich.
And this brings us back to the Cranbrook School incident. We might have learned from The Washington Post this week that Romney gallantly interceded on poor Lauber’s behalf. Or even, maybe, that he did the awful deed, but a few years later he got in touch with Lauber to say, “Gee, old scout, went a bit overboard there.” Or even that he acknowledged to one of his confederates that he regretted the incident. In other words, we might have learned something that showed he knows he behaved like an asshole. But all we learned is that he behaved like an asshole and is now pretending to forget it. A jerk is one thing. But a jerk who takes no responsibility for his jerkitude is pretty much the definition of an unlikeable person.
No human being is one dimensional. I’m sure there are plenty of people in the world for whom Mitt has performed kindnesses. I expect we’ll be getting to know every single one of them in these next few months, too, in heavily filtered television ads in which the men wear proletarian flannel and the women’s St. John blazers are kept safely in the closet. All I can say is they’d better be more likeable than their candidate—for his sake. In the meantime, there’s something very reassuring about this country reposing in those numbers, that the black guy with the weird name who’s been called everything under the sun is twice as likeable as the rich white guy. This is the America that drives the wingers crazy, but that the rest of us—the majority—live in, and love.