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What Happened to Liking the Candidate You Support?

Giuliani and fans at a restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois. (Reuters).

One of the numbers that leaped out of the new Post-ABC News poll of Iowa voters came on the question of which candidate voters see as honest and trustworthy. On that quality, Republicans in the Hawkeye state don't think much of Rudy Giuliani.

Just 4 percent of likely caucus participants cited the former New York mayor, putting him behind Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain. At the same time, 31 percent cited Giuliani as the strongest leader in the field, well ahead of all his rivals except Romney (who was at 30 percent).

By The Numbers

Read more coverage of the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll

--The Iowa Three-Way Race

--Huckabee Gaining Ground in Iowa

--For Democrats, Iowa Still Up for Grabs

-- More Post poll coverage

A similar though less striking relationship occurred among the Democrats. Hillary Clinton was judged by third of Iowa Democrats to be the strongest leader in the field, but half as many called her the most honest and trustworthy.

The findings seem to raise an obvious question: whatever happened to likeability? When Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were running for president, "likeability" was seen as absolutely critical to a candidate's success. It propelled Clinton past Bush's father in 1992 and gave him a huge advantage over Bob Dole in 1996.

Bush was seen as a more likeable candidate than Al Gore in the disputed election of 2000 and had an even greater edge on that attribute in a 2004 election that was fought on terrain that in many respects favored John Kerry.

This year, Clinton and Giuliani, the two candidates who lead the national polls, get lower ratings on trust and honesty than they do on strength and leadership, and as Mark McKinnon, who did the ads for Bush in 2000 and 2004 and now works for McCain, said Wednesday morning, "You usually don't like people you don't trust."

McKinnon believes something is different now, which doesn't eliminate the importance of a candidate's ability to connect and establish a bond of trust with voters. "There's no question that the equation has changed and the equation has changed because of 9/11," he said. "What that means is that, in presidential elections, it's really not about issues, it's about a constellation of attributes that includes trust, includes shared values, includes strong leadership."

Republican strategist Mike Murphy offered this assessment. "I think likeability is part of the winning mix, but doesn't dominate," he wrote in an email message. "I think people perceive that competence is the important trait right now, so they are willing to take a little less likeability in exchange for a little more cold competence. They're looking for a little less Homer Simpson and a little more Mr. Burns."

Mark Mellman, who was Kerry's pollster in 2004, said other attributes are more important than a candidate's likeability and have been in past elections. "I think likeability is vastly overrated," he wrote. "It is just one dimension of personality to which voters react.

"Bush didn't win in 04 because he was more likeable," he added. "He won because he was seen as more steadfast particularly in fighting terror, which is less relevant today. But it's still not high school. Traits other than likeability are important today and have been in most elections. Strength, leadership, competence, compassion and other personal traits almost always enter into the equation."

In part, what voters may be reflecting is a reaction to what they have seen over the past eight years. Given Bush's low approval rating and the harsh assessments of the administration's competence in managing the war in Iraq and the Katrina aftermath, there's no doubt that voters are looking for more than likeability in their chief executive.

"I think that what voters want in a candidate depends on the voter's verdict on the president in office [and the] state of the nation," Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center, wrote in his email response to my question about this. "In this case, people see a failure of leadership in the Bush year, and that's why strong leadership image may be trumping 'likeability.'"

Another Republican strategist, who declined to be identified, agreed that voters appear to have elevated competence over likeability. "You could make the case...," he wrote, "that both Hillary and Rudy generally outdistance their competitors on competence/experience/ability-to-get-the-job-done, etc. Yet Hillary especially is not viewed as especially warm. So what you're essentially seeing is an effort by voters to 'correct' (some might say overcompensate) for the perceived 'flaws' in the current president."

Kohut offered a closing thought for the two national front-runners. Both, he said, have work left to do to assuage voters' concerns about aspects of their personality that might fall under the likeability umbrella: "genuineness for her and volatility for him."

Clinton supporters were quick to note Wednesday the results of a Quinnipiac Poll that showed the New York senator as the Democratic candidate more Americans would like to invite to their Thanksgiving dinner. Giuliani is the favorite among the Republicans. Perhaps that's a reflection of their celebrity status or their overall standing in national polls, but it also suggests that single measures of likeability are not adequate in understanding how voters evaluate the candidates.

Giuliani is selling leadership as his strongest attribute but Katie Levinson, the campaign's communications director, said the former mayor also appeals to voters because they have a sense of a real person. "Voters want someone who is authentic and the real deal -- not someone who is pretending to be something they're not," she wrote.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said likeability still matters and pointed to Mike Huckabee's rise in Iowa as evidence. He said respect matters more than likeability, but the key to a truly successful presidency is having both. Ayres cited Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as three who he believes combined both.

"If you can only have one, respect goes farther in politics, he wrote. "I think that's particular true in a time of national challenge like terrorism, and I think that helps to explain both Giuliani's and Clinton's strength so far."

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 21, 2007; 1:35 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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