- Even in a tight race and a bad economy, Obama's likeability numbers keep him above water
- Candidates are using social media, daytime and late-night TV to show some personality
- Romney is pushing his own charm factor to woo voters
President Barack Obama lags in several polls on fixing the economy. His favorability rating is virtually even with that of presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. His signature health care reform law appears on the verge of being overturned. Women, once central to his base, are now drifting toward his opponent. He has even lost support among once-passionate young voters.
Yet, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll released this week, 56% of those polled believe the president will cinch re-election this fall, compared to 36% percents who think Romney will win.
Some are wondering: "What gives?"
Despite the heated campaign, lackluster performance on the economy and negative feelings many conservatives have toward the incumbent president, many voters still like Barack Obama as a person. And, in the popularity contest that is American politics, that can go a long way.
He croons the opening lines of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and the Twitterverse goes crazy. Flattering pictures of him with the first lady and his daughters spread across Facebook like kudzu. He goes on late-night TV to slow jam with Jimmy Fallon, and then reclaims the overplayed mantle of the "cool" president.
Obama even turned on the charm during an appearance Tuesday on "The View," a move political experts say will help revive his popularity among women -- a key voting bloc. He answered pop quiz questions about reality star Kim Kardashian's short-lived marriage. He deferred to the first lady on a question about the racy "50 Shades of Grey," a novel currently on many women's must-read lists.
Still, he is locked in a virtual dead heat with Romney in nationwide horserace polls and his approval rating is stuck around 50%, according to the latest CNN/ORC International poll. But Gallup this week has the president leading the former Massachusetts governor by 29 points when it comes to "likeability." And an earlier CNN/ORC poll had Obama nearly 10 points ahead of Romney on the likeability factor.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently dubbed Obama the "ESPN president," attributing his high favorability marks to his "post-boomer manliness."
"It's been long established that voters want a president they're comfortable with," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report. "What's his favorite pastime? Playing basketball. He likes hanging out with his kids. It's clear he's a parent like most parents. He talks about his wife. He's very good at connecting with people, he's a good speaker."
Those factors lend to Obama's "nice guy" image, Duffy said. It's an image the Obama campaign worked hard to cultivate during the 2008 election cycle when he was portrayed by Republicans as an Ivy-League-educated, poor-bowling, elitist professor who looked down on people who "cling to guns or religion."
Sending first lady Michelle Obama out on a charm offensive to make the rounds on talk shows and dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to places like eastern Ohio, where he was slated to speak on the president's economic record, has also helped, Duffy said.
But his opponent is launching his own charisma counter-offensive.
Now that the bruising GOP primary has ended, the Romney campaign's efforts to soften their candidate's image as a stiff and out-of-touch rich guy may be paying off, said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.
Romney got chuckles when he appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman" in December. His Top Ten list of things he'd like to say to the American people included quipping "What's up gangstas -- it's the M-I-Double Tizzle."
Other personal touches include a blog by Romney's personal aide, Garrett Jackson, which chronicles his time on the campaign trail with the GOP presidential hopeful and even features a stop at Junior's Cheesecake restaurant in New York. Ann Romney's popular Pinterest page includes recipes and pictures of patriotic-themed desserts.
Gillespie attributes most of the gain in Romney's favorability to fact that he's the likely Republican presidential nominee.
"Now that it's clear to see that he is going to be the nominee, you'll find Republican voters fall in line and like their guy a little bit more," she explained.
Still, Romney's comments about his wife owning "a couple of Cadillacs," stories about elevators and six-car garages, bragging about his pals who own NASCAR racing teams and Ann Romney's recent appearance on CBS' "This Morning" in a $1,000 designer t-shirt fueled critics who accuse the former Massachusetts governor of flaunting his wealth.
Even in the midst of a struggling economy, Ronald Reagan used his popularity and likeability to help propel him to a second term in 1984. And Harry Truman won a come-back re-election in 1948 after a series of battles with Congress over post-war reconstruction.
But plenty of well-liked presidents ended up as one-termers, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Former president Gerald Ford, who had a friendly, affable persona, had a tough time overcoming his pardon of Richard Nixon. Former president George H.W. Bush, whose popularity peaked after the first Gulf War, was ultimately felled by a sluggish economy.
"Presidential decisions are a product of economic conditions and job approval," Sabato said. "It's wonderful to be liked, but it doesn't affect the vote that much."