TAMPA, Fla. — The Republicans who are assembled here have been told time and time again that Barack Obama’s great advantage over Mitt Romney is likability.
And many of the 15,000 or so journalists who endured the gusts of rain on Monday and groaned in the sun on the 1.5-mile walk from the nearest parking lot to the metal detectors outside the convention press center have been writing and soundbiting that the chief task of the Romney campaign is to introduce Romney’s personal background and character to the public to improve his favorability ratings.
Both talking points are true, but only (in an old journalistic phrase) up to a point.
The latest ABC/Washington Post poll, for example, reported that when asked which of the two candidates was more likable, 61 percent picked Obama and only 27 percent said Romney. That looks like a huge advantage.
But when you look at what pollsters call their favorable/unfavorables, the contrast is much less distinct. Obama’s balance in the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls is 49 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable.
Romney’s are 43 percent favorable, 43 percent unfavorable. Weaker, but not a whole lot. A successful convention could put Romney’s numbers up around Obama’s, or higher — just Team Obama’s campaigning seems to have weighed his down.
As for likability, it’s more important in some elections than in others. Bob Grady, who worked on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, tells how Bush turned a deficit going into the conventions into a lead in the polls.
Focus groups tested the response to speeches by Bush and his opponent, Michael Dukakis. Dukakis came out ahead. But when the focus groups were shown a generic TV newscaster type reading the two texts, the Bush message was the winner.
Conclusion: Use the convention to show some of Bush’s human qualities — increase his likability. But put the emphasis on a sharp-edged contrast between how the candidates stand on the issues.
My sense is that the Romney campaign managers are taking a similar approach. They seem confident that the $120 million the Obama forces have spent attacking Romney’s business record have not had much effect. Obama’s lead over Romney in the RCP average on the first full day of the convention was 47 to 46 percent.
They have not spent much time showing Romney’s human side this summer, and they clearly want the convention to do some of that.
They were fretting over the broadcast networks’ decision not to broadcast Monday’s night session and rescheduled Ann Romney’s speech from Tuesday even before the hurricane threat scotched Monday night altogether.
There will be testimony Thursday night from witnesses of Romney’s work in his church and at the Salt Lake City Olympics. And of course the acceptance speech from Romney himself.
But as uberblogger Mickey Kaus suggests, lightly committed voters may not be as interested as they were a decade or two ago in having a president they are comfortable watching five nights a week on television.
That’s because fewer people are watching TV so regularly. The folks at Targeted Victory, a firm doing microtargeting for Romney and Republicans, told me they teamed with a Democratic firm to conduct surveys of TV viewing in two ultra target states, Ohio and Florida.
They found that 31 percent of respondents no longer watch live TV at all, except for sports events. They watch cable or satellite, or use TiVo or Hulu to watch movies with commercials. News audiences seem tilted to older voters, who tend to have strongly held preferences.
So it’s not clear how many people will be watching Romney. Convention ratings were pretty good in 2008, but a recent survey shows less interest.
In any case, the Romney people seem confident that he can meet the threshold test of likability and, more important, that the differences between Romney and Obama over issues and over their basic attitudes toward America worked to the Republicans’ advantage.
There’s lots of evidence to support this second proposition. Voters are most concerned about the related issues of the economy and the size of government. They are discontented with the status quo.
In 1988, it was the other way around: Voters were basically content. Bush offered more of the same and won.
This year, people want something different. Romney offers that. Obama offers more of the same. Emphasizing that contrast, the Romney people believe, is a winner.