Would You Prefer a President Who Is Book Smart or Street Smart?
The Slate/SurveyMonkey Political Survey asks the campaign questions no one else will.
Photos by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images; Oli Scarff/Getty Images.
Call it the summer stalemate. It’s hot outside, the presidential candidates are running from one rally to the next, but, for all their hustle, we don’t really see much movement. In our last Slate/SurveyMonkey political survey, our pool of more than 1,000 registered voters told us that they felt the United States was veering off course; that around 30 percent—the largest plurality—“strongly disapproved” of Obama’s efforts as president; and that, nevertheless, the American people would still rather have Obama change their tires and babysit the kids than Romney. Americans seem unhappy with the economy—particularly with dribbling jobs numbers—but Mitt’s failure to connect with voters appears to be handing the advantage to Obama.
Well, in late July, we again took the temperature of more than a 1,000 registered voters and guess what? Thirty days have passed, Americans still don’t like the economy, Obama still crests on a swell of charisma, and Mitt Romney still needs a personality coach. (Information on our respondents is available here. More information about SurveyMonkey Audience is here.) In July, a familiar 55 percent of survey-takers reported that the country was either “definitely” or “probably” heading in the wrong way.
Still, the president’s ineffable magnetism remains intact. When we reprised the auto-in-distress question (“If your car was broken down on the side of the road, which presidential candidate would you want to stop and help you change the tire?”), Obama’s edge increased slightly. Nearly 50 percent of respondents, up from 47.6 percent in June, would prefer to see the POTUS approaching with a spare and a toolkit. Likewise, 51.7 percent of survey takers in July would hire Obama as a babysitter: an increase from 48.7 percent last month.
But Obama’s marginal gains aren’t the most important shift in July’s survey. It isn’t so much that Obama is doing better during the midsummer months than Romney appears to be doing worse. The former governor had a tough month. In the shadow of the Bain ads, the brouhaha over his unwillingness to release his tax records, and a botched overseas “charm offensive” that one British paper derided as “utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive,” he’s been struggling to get out of his own way. Heading into November, Romney will need to assure voters he can stitch up the economic wounds Obama’s administration has failed to address. And based on our survey numbers, he lost some ground in July.
For instance, when we asked whether respondents thought their lives would get better, get worse, or stay the same if Barack Obama were re-elected, the largest group (27.5 percent) projected that things would turn “somewhat better.” Again, that’s a marginal increase from June’s 26.1 percent. But when we asked the same question of Romney, people’s confidence slumped. Only 22 percent thought their lives would improve “somewhat,” which is bad enough. But the combined total of survey takers who supposed a Romney White House would make their lives either “a great deal better” or “somewhat better” fell from 34 percent to 27.6 percent between June and July. A combined 49.3 percent—up from 42 percent in June—suspected things would worsen with Mitt at the helm.
What is ailing Romney? In addition to the gaffes and attack ads, our survey results suggest that the former governor may suffer from an honesty deficit. When asked “How honest do you think Mitt Romney is with American voters,” 29.4 percent of respondents replied with “slightly honest,” 26.6 percent offered a lukewarm “moderately honest,” and 26 percent said “not at all honest” (ouch). Furthermore, 30.4 percent of those surveyed believe Romney hides his true political opinions “about half the time.”
To be sure, even if Obama inspires a little more trust, people still understand he is a politician. The largest group of survey takers, 28.1 percent, considers him “moderately honest,” followed by “very honest” (22.3 percent), “slightly honest” (20.6 percent), “not at all honest” (20.4) and “extremely honest” (8.6 percent). Only 22.4 percent thinks the POTUS conceals his real attitudes “about half the time.” The largest faction, 38.3 percent, would amend that statement to “once in a while.”
But American voters give credit where credit is due. As last month’s survey revealed, people readily acknowledge Romney’s business acumen—and some even conjecture it might give him a hand in the Oval Office. We were curious about what people saw when they looked at the presidential candidates—what skill sets they perceived and how those abilities aligned with the country’s priorities. So we asked, “Some people are ‘book smart’ and some people are ‘street smart.’ How would you characterize Barack Obama?” The largest group of respondents, 44.1 percent, gave the POTUS the best of both worlds, replying that he was book smart AND street smart. Twenty-five percent described him as book smart only, 22.1 percent said he was neither, and 8.8 percent called him street smart only.
Then, we asked the same about Romney. The fattest slice of survey takers granted the governor ivory tower credentials but withheld his diploma from the school of hard knocks. Nearly 41 percent considered him book smart only, 32.1 percent called him neither book smart nor street smart, 19.1 percent said he was both, and 7.9 percent said he was only street smart.
These results indicate that respondents may see Obama as a more complete individual than his opponent. He has both knowledge and practical know-how—after all, he’s the guy you want around when your engine sputters or your child tries to swallow the remote control. Romney’s seen neither as unintelligent nor as unlearned, but he again loses points for seeming out-of-touch. And that knack for connecting with people on the street may be exactly what Americans yearn for in their head of state, as July’s final question reveals: “Would you prefer a president who is street smart or book smart?” The biggest set of survey takers, 42.9 percent, chose street smart; 21.5 percent opted for book smart; and 35.6 percent were undecided.
After a month like July, Mitt Romney may be the only person in America who is happy to see August.
Katy Waldman is a Slate assistant editor.