Heading into his party's nominating convention, Mitt Romney faces a problem similar to one that confronted Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992: a lot of people don't like him.
In the weeks leading up to the '92 New York Democratic National Convention, Clinton's popularity was "upside-down" in the polls, meaning that more people held an unfavorable than a favorable opinion of him. A significant swath of voters saw Clinton as an elitist, power-hungry, philandering career politician.
A 14-minute, Hollywood-produced biopic helped change that. Titled "The Man from Hope," it re-packaged Clinton as an up-from-nothing, starry-eyed optimist inspired by a boyhood encounter with John F. Kennedy to devote his life to public service.
The film — and other similarly themed aspects of the week — worked. Clinton emerged with a shiny new persona, and went on to easily capture the White House.
Modern presidential conventions are glorified infomercials, choreographed to impact the national television audience — who, unlike the political junkies and partisan activists in attendance, have not spent the past two years watching the candidate's every move.
If anyone needs this kind of rebranding, it's Mitt Romney, whose popularity is even worse than Clinton's ever was. Recent polling shows that at least half the voting public has an unfavorable impression of the former Massachusetts governor. That figure seems to keep rising every month.
A steady stream of media reports have been describing this as a "likability gap" between Romney and Obama. Conventional political practice would suggest using the upcoming RNC to present a more likable Romney. But experts I've spoken with — Republicans, Democrats, and non-partisans — have a nearly unanimous message for Romney: forget about it.
"Any effort to stage a re-introduction, or make him more likable, is going to backfire," says Boston-based Republican consultant Todd Domke.
"Trying to become more popular is a great goal," says Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the national Rothenberg Political Report. "I'm just not convinced that it can work at this point."
You'll get no argument from Ben Domenech, policy editor at the conservative Heartland Institute who also writes the Transom newsletter. "Romney might be best served by saying, 'Look, you might not like me,' " says Domenech. " 'But you need someone like me to come in and fix these problems.' "
Many of these observers argue that Romney's image problem stems primarily from the extraordinary early pummeling he has taken from Obama, who has been running attack ads throughout the usually quiet summer months, and from Republican primary opponents who slapped him around before that.
But Romney has never even tried to push a more positive personal narrative in the 2012 cycle, as nearly all candidates do. His likability problem goes way back, long before this campaign.
In fact, Romney entered the presi-dential race knowing that he could only be elected as the lesser of bad choices.
FOLLOW THE DATA
According to people involved with Romney's 2002 campaign for governor, polling and focus groups demonstrated early on that there was no way to make people like candidate Mitt Romney.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. But Romney's infamous reliance on data-driven analysis trumped his considerable ego and self-esteem. He agreed to cancel plans for a series of introductory, biographical ads, and instead devote the media strategy almost entirely to attacks on his Democratic opponent, state treasurer Shannon O'Brien.