Winning elections is not all about likability

Signals suggest former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown will announce a Senate run in New Hampshire this afternoon. If he does announce today, his campaign will begin amid upside down favorability for Brown among New Hampshire voters. Recent polls have shown his favorable/unfavorable ratio at 33/42 (Suffolk) and 34/40 (PPP). His opponent, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen sits with a comfortable 53/37 fav/unfav, and a similarly positive rating among the all-important Independent voters.

These numbers are worth noting, for sure, but favorables and likeability aren't everything—the 2012 Massachusetts Senate campaign demonstrated that. Now-Senator Elizabeth Warren was able to defeat Brown despite his constant and successful cultivation of the barn coat wearing, truck driving “everyman” image and his consistently high favorables. Team Warren saw his likeability as relatively immovable, choosing instead to focus on other avenues. The numbers later in the campaign cycle showed the impact of this decision. Browns favorables ranged as high as the 50s and 60s through much of 2012, even as the campaign was underway. On Election Day, exit polls showed Brown (60/38) with higher net favorables than Warren (56/43), even as he went down to defeat.

Importantly, 24 percent of those who viewed Brown favorably didn't vote for him--it turned many voters were looking for something other than likeability. In our pre-election polling for WBUR, the candidate attribute that best predicted vote choice was which candidate would "stand up for regular people when in the Senate”. Elizabeth Warren led on this attribute in our final pre-election poll by a 7 point margin. The exit polls echoed this, showing Warren’s strength on the issue of which candidate “cares about people” (paraphrased).

Looking back further, despite his similarly high favorables in the 2010 special election, polls suggest the national heat over healthcare reform played at least as important a role in his victory over Martha Coakley. In retrospect, the 2010 story is often told as all about the truck and the barn coat, but the data is at least ambiguous as to the role played by politics versus cosmetics.

So as the new Brown campaign gets cranked up (if indeed it does), there is no reason to hit the panic button over low favorables at this point. Likeability isn’t everything. It is something to be sure, and the Brown campaign will no doubt work to move his numbers in the right direction. But there is a real risk of relying too much on (or worrying too much about) favorables and likeability. As 2012 showed us, the winner of the popularity contest doesn't always win the election.