By now, it's accepted wisdom that the most important number for President Obama’s reelection chances will be the unemployment rate. That's probably right: No president since Franklin Roosevelt has won reelection when the rate was above 7.2 percent, as it is all but certain to be on Election Day.
While this doesn’t foreclose the possibility that he'll win a second term, it does highlight the danger that the weak economy poses to him. In a Tuesday night speech in New Hampshire meant to frame the fall election, Mitt Romney made clear that the central message of his campaign will be to pin the blame on the president: “After 25 years, I know how to lead us out of this stagnant Obama economy and into a job-creating recovery.’’
And that’s an argument likely to resonate. Most voters judge an incumbent by the state of the economy. Even though Obama presently leads in most head-to-head matchups, more people believe that Romney has better ideas for hastening growth.
Given this grim economic reality, Obama will have to render Romney unacceptable in the eyes of most voters. And that indeed appears to be his plan. As Politico reported last August, “Barack Obama's aides and advisers are preparing to center the president's reelection campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background.’’
This shift from hope to hostility means that an equally important number for Obama is his personal favorability rating. A candidate's likability matters not only for attracting supporters, but also for pressing attacks against an opponent — attacks much more likely to be effective if voters hold the candidate making them in high esteem. In fact, the main reason why campaigns bother to run positive ads at all once a race descends into mud-slinging is to ensure that their negative ads stay effective, a process known in the trade as “running a positive and a negative track.”
“The bottom line is that if people don’t like you, they don’t want you to be the person delivering bad news,” says John Brabender, Rick Santorum's longtime strategist. “I think most people do like Obama on a personal level. The question is whether he can maintain that while delivering a negative message about Romney.”
Throughout his presidency, Obama's aides have zealously cultivated his positive image with notable success, sometimes having him abstain from criticism even at the cost of short-term political advantage. Although most Americans believe that the economy remains in recession and that the country is headed on the wrong track, the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 56 percent of respondents nevertheless hold a favorable view of the president, while only 40 percent view him unfavorably.
In the same poll, Romney's numbers are upside down, with just 35 percent holding a favorable view and 47 percent an unfavorable one. “The problem that Romney has had for the last few months is that he was spending so much time attacking Santorum and the other candidates that his unfavorable ratings shot way up,” says Brabender. “They have improved since we dropped out, not necessarily because he’s become more likable, but because he is perceived as less of a bully. That will give him more credibility to play that game with Obama.”
But Romney's example highlights the hazards that politicians face whenever they resort to attacking their opponents. One possible mitigating factor for both men is the rise of super PACs, the ostensibly independent political groups that raise piles of money and did so much to finance the tsunami of negative ads in the Republican primaries. Super PACs will be working on behalf of both Obama and Romney, and both campaigns will outsource as much of the dirty work as possible in order to protect each candidate’s good image.
Still, voters probably won't recognize the distinction (nor should they). In an election that is shaping up to be brutally negative, that puts Romney at a disadvantage, at least so long as his favorability rating lags. The economy may not do much for Obama. But one irony of politics is that when a race turns into a mudfest, the nice guy often finishes first.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.