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Mitt Romney has catching up to do on personal popularity

Linda FeldmannThe Christian Science Monitor
Gage Skidmore photo

On the likability front, Mitt Romney has his work cut out for him – to a historic degree.

Only 35 percent of Americans see the presumptive Republican nominee favorably, with 47 percent seeing him unfavorably, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday. That makes Mr. Romney the first likely nominee to start the general election contest “underwater,” with more seeing him unfavorably than favorably, in the 28 years and eight presidential cycles the ABC/Post poll has been measuring candidates.

Romney trails President Obama in favorability – akin to personal popularity, not job approval – by 21 percentage points, 56 percent to 35 percent. Among women, Romney is seen favorably by just 27 percent, while 44 percent of men see him favorably.

But Romney can take heart.

“His [overall] favorable score is just a whisker from the previous low, Bill Clinton’s 37 percent in March 1992, in a race Clinton went on to win,” writes Gary Langer, pollster for ABC News. “But Clinton was damaged at the time by the Gennifer Flowers scandal and aided by soft ratings of the first President Bush, who was seen unfavorably by 47 percent, matching Romney’s negative rating among all adults today.”

And Mr. Clinton, of course, went on to become president. Mr. Langer also notes that Romney fares slightly better among registered voters, with 40 percent seeing him favorably and 47 percent unfavorably. He also suggests that Romney could benefit from the end of the competitive primaries.

“One bit of Romney’s baggage is the public’s negative assessment of the nominating process from which he’s emerging,” Langer writes. “Thirty-two percent of Americans rate ‘the Republican primaries’ as a whole favorably; 56 percent unfavorably.”

The ABC/Post poll didn’t report the head-to-head election matchup between Romney and Mr. Obama, but a Gallup tracking poll did – and the numbers work much better for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor leads Obama 47 percent to 45 percent among registered voters, which is within the margin of error.

Monday’s Gallup results were the inaugural “tracking” results of the 2012 campaign. Voters are polled daily, and Gallup reports results on the basis of continuous five-day rolling averages. So between now and Election Day, Nov. 6, there will be a new Gallup tracking average to report every day.

Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport notes that “candidates’ positioning in the spring of an election year is not necessarily good at forecasting election outcomes.”

In April 1992, the first President Bush was ahead with 41 percent of the vote, compared with 26 percent for Clinton and 25 percent for Ross Perot. In April 1980, Gallup had President Carter leading Ronald Reagan 42 percent to 24 percent, and John Anderson at 18 percent. Both presidents ended up losing.

“At this point,” writes Mr. Newport, “the results show that the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be a close race.”