10/05/2012 03:54 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Likable Enough

A day before the presidential debate a friend emailed: "Romney is really fighting an uphill battle which continues to surprise me. Guess it shows that you have to come off as more likable than necessarily capable."

What my friend wrote is indicative of how a lot of people are feeling about this election, but I think they are misreading the situation on two counts. The first is that 'likability' is necessary to win a presidential election, and the second is the root cause of why Romney trails in the polls.

What proof is there that likability matters? Mark Penn is someone with whom you may not always agree, but for much of his adult life he was a very successful pollster who has worked for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, among others, so his opinions on what wins elections merit attention. In his 2007 book Microtrends, he argued that 'likability and buddy potential' are overrated by the media and that most Americans cannot afford to use such criteria, instead weighing which candidate will most directly benefit their pocketbook. Essentially Penn is saying that journalists, pundits and other elites with a bullhorn have the financial luxury of valuing the 'buddy' factor and that they project that view on the masses.

Penn's own polling supports his thesis, but of course polls can be manipulated, misunderstood and generally made to support whatever your thesis is, even if it is that a spacelord named Xenu brought several million people to earth 75 million years ago. But in this case Penn's thesis and polling results make sense. Can a household earning the U.S. median $52k a year afford to worry about likability more than their healthcare costs or mortgage? Was Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis or Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush (or Admiral Stockdale, for that matter) unlikable? We overrate the 'buddy effect' because a recent president (George W. Bush) seemed to have no other credential.

Though likability is not a factor in elections, Mitt Romney trails in likability and trails in the polls, so observers link the two. But Romney's likability is influenced by a factor that is the real reason why an uber-competent man with a skeleton-free closet can't catch a president closely associated with an economy that's in the toilet. People see Romney's awkward campaigning, and decide that other people must find that unlikable, but his electability problem comes from the source of the awkwardness -- his lack of conviction. To be elected, leaders need conviction. We tend to follow those with conviction because for most of us conviction is hard to come by -- only when mounds of evidence and experience tell us we have good reason to feel strongly about an issue. When we see others with conviction we believe they've come by it honestly, and are happy to follow them, trust that they know what we don't. What a relief for us that someone else has this figured out!

Romney is not a man who lacks conviction in general. It takes a man of conviction to be married for nearly 50 years, to serve as a missionary and leader for his church, and to convince high powered executives to sell him their businesses (which is a large part of what a private equity chieftain does). Yet he lacks conviction when campaigning.

Much airtime has been spent by pundits attempting to put their finger on Mitt's personality. Craig Shirley, appearing on Morning Joe the morning of the debate, offered his take: "Romney has to forget the nonsense about being comfortable in his own skin... if a 65-year-old man isn't comfortable in his own skin he never will be." But of course many people, including older adults are not comfortable with who they are, and Romney is one of them when on the campaign trail.

Like the princess and the pea, or Anthony Weiner's Twitter feed, the discomfort stems from one problem buried at the bottom of it all. Romney's is that he doesn't believe most of the stuff he says on the stump.

If Romney has a guiding philosophy, as evidenced by his life before 2007, it's that expedience and efficiency win the day. He is unlike other national Republican or Democratic candidates who are true believers in all of their party's planks, no matter how philosophically inconsistent they are. In fact, if you value logic and philosophical consistency you find both party's platform lacking.

Romney came to the conclusion sometime after Bain and before 2008 that he couldn't win the presidency espousing logic and reason, and therefor that he couldn't campaign for the job as himself. In the times when he is speaking in front of his party's true believers, which is 95 percent of campaigning, he is a gaffe-o-matic. When he can speak to pragmatists, as he did in addressing centrist undecideds during the debate, he can speak as himself. Your eyes and pollsters' surveys saw Romney a clear winner in the debate. He acknowledged the need for regulation, expressed a disinterest in lowering taxes on the rich, and an interest in preserving Medicare. As a pragmatist he is a true believer in these centrist policies. (That Obama choose not to point out the inconsistency between what he said at the debate and what he said on the stump, only made it easier for Romney.)

For Romney, earning his party's nomination while burdened with the handicap of largely hiding his true convictions, it's a testament to his will, perseverance, and even a certain amount of innate likability. But only with conviction does he have a chance to clear the final hurdle.