Romney's Next Challenge: Likability

Polls show that half of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Mitt Romney.

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Mitt Romney needs a likability injection, and fast. The bitter, highly negative Republican presidential race is taking a big toll on the GOP front-runner as his unfavorability rating has grown to more than 50 percent, which means, of course, that half the voters don't like him.

That's a very difficult position to be in for any candidate, and it's causing concern among the former Massachusetts governor's supporters and advisers.

[See pictures of Mitt Romney on the campaign trail.]

It will be particularly troublesome if he wins the GOP nomination to challenge President Obama, as expected. Obama is a very likable fellow, even if people don't support some of his policies, such as his handling of the economy. The same was true of Ronald Reagan, and he won a smashing re-election victory in 1984.

Fifty percent of all adults now express unfavorable opinions of Romney, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Only 34 percent have a favorable view of him, compared with 53 percent who have a favorable view of Obama.

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It's a truism in American presidential politics that the more likable candidate generally wins. Think Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan against Walter Mondale in 1984. George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Bill Clinton against Bush in '92. Clinton against Bob Dole in '96. George W. Bush versus John Kerry in 2004. And Obama against John McCain in 2008.

The only recent exceptito the rule was George W. Bush versus Al Gore in 2000. Bush came across as more likable, but Gore actually beat him by a half-million votes nationwide. People seemed to prefer the peace and prosperity message of the Clinton-Gore administration to Bush's promise of change. In the end, a divided Supreme Court awarded disputed Florida to Bush and he became president.

[Read Thomas Frank: Obama Will Not Stand Up for His Party's Politics.]

But the pattern remains--voters want to like their leader. As pollster Doug Schoen, who advised Clinton, says, "In most elections that I have been involved with, it certainly is the case that candidates whose negative ratings are over 50 percent tend to lose. Put bluntly, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a presidential candidate to win an election with an overall negative rating of 50 percent when facing an incumbent whose favorability is above 50 percent."

But that's the position in which Mitt Romney finds himself today.

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