At the difficult art of winning highly competitive elections, former U.S. Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine — who never lost one — was very good indeed. Elected at 29 to his hometown Bangor City Council in 1969, Cohen would become that city’s mayor in 1971 before being elected in 1972 to the first of three terms in the U.S. House from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. In 1978, Cohen won the first of three six-year terms as U.S. senator before voluntarily leaving in 1996 and becoming Secretary of Defense in Democrat Bill Clinton’s administration.
An engaging man with an earned reputation for working across Washington’s partisan divide, Cohen offered this astute advice for electoral success: “I don’t care how great your ideas are or how well you can articulate them. People must like you before they will vote for you.”
Come with me back to 1984, when the Gipper was in the White House and running for reelection, and this polling question was first asked:
A) I like Ronald Reagan personally, and I mostly approve of his policies.
B) I like Ronald Reagan personally, but I mostly disapprove of his policies.
C) I dislike Ronald Reagan personally, and I mostly disapprove of his policies.
D) I dislike Ronald Reagan personally, but I mostly approve of his policies.
The Democrats, led by the admirable Walter Mondale, knew they were fighting heavy odds when the poll revealed that 7 out of 10 1984 voters personally liked Republican Ronald Reagan (including the 4 out of 10 who “mostly approve(d)” of his policies and the 3 out of 10 who “mostly disapprove(d)” of his policies). It’s almost impossible, as the Democrats would learn that November, to defeat an incumbent who’s that personally popular.
Other presidents who won a second term also were liked personally. Three years into his first term, Barack Obama was liked personally by nearly 7 out of 10 voters, even though just half of them approved of Obama’s policies. Bill Clinton, running successfully for reelection in 1996, was personally liked by 55% of voters, and George W. Bush, in his second term, even after his administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina, was still personally liked by 57% of voters.
All of which brings us to a year when another incumbent president seeks reelection. When that same question was most recently asked in the Wall Street Journal-NBC News Poll, just 25% of voters answered that they “like (President Donald Trump) personally and approve of most of his policies.” Another 4% “like (Trump) personally but disapprove of many policies.” That leaves 19% of voters who “don’t like (Trump) personally and disapprove of many policies.” And then the killer number for those who “don’t like (Trump) personally and disapprove of many policies”: a record 50% of all voters. So, 7 out of 10 of Trump’s fellow Americans “do not like personally” their president. That’s a problem.
Whatever you thought of the not-so-great first debate, Trump may have struck some as forceful, assertive, combative or feisty. But there is no one who watched him interrupt, insult, talk over, bully and pose who could honestly say, “I don’t know; I just found Donald Trump more personally likeable.” If Bill Cohen’s rule holds and “people must like you before they will vote for you,” then Nov. 3 will be neither a nail-biter nor a photo finish; Joe Biden will win decisively.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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