The problem that’s hard to fix

Think about where Mitt Romney stood a week ago. He’d won the nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire; his national lead was large and getting larger; and he enjoyed double-digit leads over his squabbling competitors in the South Carolina primary.

And then think about where Romney stands this morning. It turns out he lost Iowa to a candidate he outspent 7 to 1; his national lead has, according to Gallup, “collapsed” over the course of the last several days; he struggled through two widely-panned debate performances; and polls suggest he’s likely to lose the South Carolina primary.

It’s likely, in about 12 hours, the only contest Romney will have won will be in the state he lives in for much of the year.

There wasn’t one story or development that caused this shift, and all things considered, Romney is still very well positioned to win his party’s nomination anyway. But it’s worth pausing to consider why Romney is struggling in unexpected ways.

Benjy Sarlin and Kyle Leighton reported this week on Romney’s “likability problem.”

Mitt Romney may be on the verge of securing the nomination, but his campaign is still struggling with a pretty basic problem as it looks towards the general election: people just don’t like him very much.

Romney’s never been the kind of candidate to draw legions of screaming fans, but new polling over the last week show a troubling trend for him — his personal favorability numbers are taking a hit. On Tuesday Public Policy Polling (D) showed Romney with a favorability split well into the negative, with 35 percent of general election voters seeing him positively and 53 unfavorably. On Wednesday, the Pew Research center released similar numbers: a 33 – 47 split nationally.

While Republican voters are starting to come around to his candidacy, the rest of the country doesn’t seem too pleased with what they see. Romney’s lost six points on favorability among independent voters since Pew’s last poll in November, leading to a 13 point gap on the metric, 33 – 45. The TPM Poll Average of Romney’s national favorability now shows a 5.8 deficit, and his unfavorability has risen ten points during the last two and half months in our numbers.

Here’s that problem in visual form:

Nate Silver makes a persuasive case that favorability polls can be a little tricky, but he agrees the process is taking its toll of voters’ impressions of the former governor.

The point that should concern the Romney campaign most is how difficult it is to address a problem like this. He was leading in Iowa, but after he spent more time in the state, Romney’s edge disappeared. He was leading in South Carolina, but after campaigning aggressively in the state, Romney’s advantage disappeared here, too. Even in New Hampshire, Romney won with relative ease, but polls conducted a week before the primary showed him with a bigger lead than what he ended up with.

What does a candidate do when the more voters seem him, the less they like him?

Jamison Foser joked the other day that Romney is “basically the jerky rich kid from an ’80s teen movie, grown up.” That struck me as compelling, not only because I saw a lot of ’80s teen movies, but because I perceive Romney the same way. Given recent polls, it seems I’m probably not alone.

Maybe he’d excel more as a candidate if he campaigned less?