In an excellent column over at The Daily Beast, former Prospect czar Michael Tomasky points out Mitt Romney's enormous likeability deficit, which seems to grow worse with each passing week. It's not only true impressionistically, polls back it up: Gallup recently found 60 percent of Americans saying Barack Obama is likeable, compared to only 31 percent for Romney. Tomasky does a good job of breaking down all the reasons why, and points out that the last time the candidate considered less likeable won the presidency was 44 years ago, when grumpy Dick Nixon edged smiling Hubert Humphrey. This could well be one of those interesting-but-probably-meaningless correlations, like the taller candidate always winning (which held true for many years until 2004). But given the preponderance of "gut" voting among the American people, it's likely to make a significant difference in November.
But what is it that makes a person—not a politician, but someone you meet face to face—likeable? There are some specific things you could point to: they seem genuinely interested in you, they display values similar to yours, they're modest, they're considerate, they appear happy, they have a sense of humor. Of course, there's also something ineffable, a quality that you can't define but you sense. But if we put that last part aside for the moment, we see that the definable parts of likeability are qualities that every politician has, or at least wants us to believe they have. When they meet us, politicians listen attentively and assure us that they care about the things we care about. They are usually optimistic, unless they're talking about the consequence of the other party taking power. They smile a lot. Everything about them is designed to make us like them.
Sometimes that's just genuinely who they are, and sometimes it's more of an act they put on. But while there are a few notable exceptions, for the most part you wouldn't decide to run for office in the first place if you weren't a people person. It's a job requirement. There aren't many surly, misanthropic introverts in Congress.
So I suppose it's a tribute to our finely-tuned ability to judge character, even in ways we can't define, that most Americans don't find Mitt Romney particularly likeable. It's hard for a liberal not to look at this situation and say, "Ha! Eat it, Republicans!" But let's not forget that not long ago, we were the ones complaining that "Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?" was just about the dumbest criterion you could use to select a president (and, since the one who won that contest turned out to be pretty awful, we were right). You could come up with any number of reasons Mitt Romney wouldn't make a good president, but being a bit of a jerk isn't one of them.