I have infinite problems with this insight from Jamelle:
“likability” (a subjective and completely amorphous quality) has absolutely nothing to do with presidential approval or electoral performance. I’ve made this point a million times before, but Barack Obama is presiding over a sluggish economy with high unemployment; if you’re trying to explain his low approval ratings, that should be your first stop. Indeed, the two most popular presidents in recent memory — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — also had their approval ratings dip in the face of poor economic performance.
Yes, the unemployment rate is likely hugely more important to voters — certainly to voters who aren’t strenuously committed to either political “side” — than various Barack Obama personal trivia, but I don’t understand how Jamelle’s point about relative importance necessarily translates to “likability” having “absolutely nothing to do with presidential approval or electoral performance.”
To ding further, I think that Jamelle is confusing the specifics of an example with a more general theory of elections and voter choice. “Likability” isn’t going to make anyone forget that they — or their spouse, or their child, or their neighbor — is unemployed (or under-employed), but “likability” intersects many variables: clarity of message, your ability to raise money, your ability to amass short- and long-term volunteers, the extents to which you motivate short- and long-term volunteers, leadership perceptions writ general, etc. These variables do in fact greatly affect your ability to be elected to office. I and many others might toss Hillary Clinton and Adrian Fenty as recent testaments to this notion.
Asserting strictly that likability is meaningless, or that it is at best valueless, maybe makes a bit of sense in a paradigm where voter choice is binary and between apparently diametric options, but what about in unwieldy primaries, where the differences among candidates are relatively arbitrary? What about races in which there is no incumbent to index present circumstances to, or in which present circumstances can’t be so clearly indexed to a particular party? What about in local races where politics might prove more retail/social than at grander scales? What about in races where at least one candidate is either remarkably charismatic or intensely personally offensive?
That is: what about in most elections that aren’t presidential re-election campaigns at the nadir of economic recession?
UPDATE: Jamelle notes via Twitter that he wasn’t making his argument as a grand theory of elections, but as an observation of presidential elections in particular, where likability “doesn’t much matter.”
First, there’s still significant daylight between “doesn’t much matter” and “has absolutely nothing to do with.” That said, narrowing the observation to presidential election politics requires, I think, a pretty hard pivot of political science: voters consciously and unconsciously digest candidates’ personalities in deciding whom to vote for (among candidates who are tolerable against requisite ideological criteria) and how to participate in elections, expect in presidential elections, where they don’t, because it’s the economy, stupid, or something.