Now that Romney’s got the nomination* the serious business of journalists cogitating on an election that won’t happen for another seven months can begin. Since he’s the challenger, much of the talk is of whether Romney’s got what it takes to knock Obama off his perch. Two articles out today get into the personality question, as in: does Romney’s lack of one matter?
Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog on the NYT addresses the apparent problem that people see Romney as much less empathetic than Obama. There are two interesting points here: one is that perceptions of personality traits like being empathetic or being a good leader basically break down along party lines. If you’re a Democratic voter, Romney can’t empathise for shit, while if you’re a Republican, his very heart vibrates with your own. The roles are pretty much reversed for Obama, although a slightly higher proportion of Republicans see him as empathetic than of Democrats see Romney as such. This is itself doesn’t negate the importance of empathy and suchlike though, because American elections (much like British ones) are fought over the small number of independent (or “swing”) voters located in battleground states, hence what really matters is what the people in the middle think, rather than those that were going to vote for you anyway. But the second interesting point from the article is that perceptions of candidate empathy pretty much balance out with the rest of their characteristics:
Furthermore, perceptions of candidates’ personalities aren’t necessarily consequential because there are many potential trait dimensions on which voters could evaluate candidates — honesty, leadership, empathy — and across these different dimensions, voters’ assessments may not help any one candidate. A candidate’s empathy advantage could be offset by a leadership disadvantage. Thus, the total effect of these trait perceptions on the election’s outcome would be small. This is exactly what the political scientist Larry Bartels found in a study of the presidential elections from 1980 to 2000.
And the article goes on to conclude with what just about every political scientist will refer to continually between now and the election: what really matters is whether the economic recovery picks up or not.
Which, coincidentally, is basically what this bit from the Economist gets around to saying after its own tour around the houses. It starts with Romney’s woman problem: in short, that they prefer Obama, a lot. There is some discussion of whether various controversies around contraception and abortion are to blame for this hostility, and I can’t quite get to the bottom of what the article is saying there. But what it definitely does produce at the end is a quotation from a novelist, Walter Kirn, who has a political column going at GQ. What I like about this is that GQ and the Economist broadly agree with the conclusion to the NYT piece, but based on dead reckoning rather than a bunch of statistics. From the Economist (with props for the Glengarry Glenross reference):
If he [Romney] manages to close, it will be because he’s persuaded enough of us, man and woman alike, that he’s the abler, uberer mensch.
That, and a slack recovery.
So what I’m getting from this, above all, as the one message the candidates need to hear: “Be competent, dudes. Be competent.”
*I hereby vow that aside from this footnote, there shall be no mention of Newt Gingrich on this blog.