In the seven presidential elections since 1992, the Republican presidential nominee has won the popular vote exactly once. The lone GOP candidate to receive a majority of the national vote was George W. Bush in 2004. Bush’s election-day victory over Democrat John Kerry, who had, in most observers’ views, “won” the debates between the two, was explained by the respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart: “Voters preferred I Like over IQ.”
One test of deciding between presidential nominees is, “Who would you rather have a beer with?” which is another way of asking which White House challenger the voter personally likes more than the other. In short, our ballot for president is the most “personal” vote we Americans cast. Almost always, we pick the candidate with whom we are more comfortable and, more significantly, the candidate whose judgment and character we think we could depend upon in a personal crisis.
As evidence of the weight of the “I like” factor in presidential voting, let’s look at recent contests: In 2012, Barack Obama, the winner, was rated 52 percent personally favorable by voters, while Mitt Romney’s scores were 47 percent favorable and 50 percent unfavorable. In 2008, Americans had a rare positive choice. In the last Gallup poll before election day, John McCain was given a favorable rating by 57 percent of Americans and was barely eclipsed by Barack Obama’s 61 percent favorable score. In 2004, winner George W. Bush was 53 percent favorable among voters on election day, while John Kerry’s numbers were at 47 percent – 51 percent. In 1992 and 1996, voters liked Democrat Bill Clinton more than they liked both then-President George H. W. Bush and Sen. Bob Dole.
Of course, the outlier election was 2016, when both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received historically low favorability scores. About one in five voters rated both candidates unfavorably but, when forced to choose between the two, voted for Trump with 3-2 odds.
But what about the 2020 outsider who’s on our living rooms TVs at every timeout of every game, at every commercial break between weather reports, news coverage and even during the Super Bowl? Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, an authentic billionaire, is spending at a rate unprecedented in American politics. And it is paying off. In most recent national polls, Bloomberg — on the strength of his wall-to-wall media campaign — has risen to double digits and as high as third place in some surveys.
We know that Michael Bloomberg has supported and spent generously to back candidates and initiatives that reflect his own priorities of gun control and climate change. In the eyes of some Democrats, Bloomberg’s political history — his quarter-million-dollar gift to South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham; the more than $11 million the mayor donated in 2016 to Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, whose narrow win secured Mitch McConnell as senate majority leader; and his endorsement of George W. Bush for reelection — suggest his commitment to the Party in 2020 is more convenience than conviction.
But we do not know who Mike Bloomberg really is. Does he have a temper or a sense of humor? Can he laugh at himself? Would we want him as a neighbor? Can he personally ask the machinist in Dayton and her husband for their votes? Or is he a billionaire who, like so many people with money, is most comfortable surrounded by high-priced, professional bootlickers who tell him how much smarter, more successful and more qualified he is to be president than anyone else?
Through his sophisticated and expensive TV and internet campaigns, we are learning what Mike Bloomberg wants us to know about him. What voters have yet to find out — and will not know until he’s in the arena, mixing it up with the other Democrats and on the debate stage — is whether we will like Mike.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.