The most important word in American politics is trust. And that's why Barack Obama is maintaining a slight lead over Mitt Romney, despite a sputtering economy and a gloomy electorate.
Trust cannot be altered easily by a speech or a commercial or a debate. Trust is deeply rooted in who a candidate really is -- his personality, character, temperament.
While many voters are just now tuning into the election campaign, Romney has been running for president for five years. That's plenty of time for Americans to develop a sense of his values and priorities. And when they measure Romney against the president, the Republican's trust deficit is clear and considerable. When an ABC News/Washington Post poll asked voters "who would make a more loyal friend," they chose the president by 50 percent to 36 percent.
Of course the race is much closer than that, with Obama leading by an average of only three points in national polls. But that's because the economy is still so dreadful. In fact, Romney should be far ahead, which is why so many Republican operatives are so frustrated.
Talk show host Laura Ingraham spoke for many disenchanted GOP'ers when she said this should be a "gimme election" for the Republicans. "If you can't beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party," she fulminated.
The hunt is already on for scapegoats. Republican pros complain that Stuart Stevens, Romney's main message maven, responds too slowly to Democratic attacks. Hard-line conservatives have a different beef -- that the candidate's not pure or specific enough in outlining his proposals.
But Romney's biggest problem is not his advisers or his policies. It is Romney himself. He is just not a very good candidate. He has trouble inspiring affection, confidence and, yes, trust. And that really matters.
We have covered politics since the '60s, and we have some data to go on. When voters explain their choices, they seldom mention issues or positions. Instead they say, "I like him ... he understands me ... I think he'll do the right thing." In the ABC News/Washington Post survey, voters by 65 percent to 23 percent said it's more important to trust a candidate than to agree with him.
Trust actually encompasses several dimensions, the first of which is friendliness. Yes, Obama can come across as frosty and detached, but Romney makes him look like Mr. Congeniality. By a margin of more than 2-to-1, voters consider the president "more personally likable" than his opponent.
The second dimension of trust is empathy, a sense of connectedness. Obama can tell stories about his life experiences that convey the message: "I get it; I know what you're going through." Romney has not lived that kind of life, and when he tries to relate to ordinary folks, he seems forced and phony. Does anyone really believe he's a Snooki fan?
It's not that Romney is rich -- we've elected rich people before (see FDR, JFK and both Bushes). It's that voters think Romney's wealth isolates and insulates him from real-world problems. And his derisive comments, in a leaked video, about nontaxpayers "who believe that they are the victims" only reinforces that impression of detached elitism. When the CBS News/New York Times poll asked who "understands people like you," 62 percent said the president; only 43 percent named his challenger.
A third element of trust is truth telling, and here's where policy and personality can overlap. Many voters sense that when Romney says he can cut taxes and still balance the budget, he's simply not leveling with them. By 49 percent to 42 percent, voters say Obama is playing straight and not trying to mislead them. Romney's numbers on the same question are 43 percent positive, 48 percent negative.
Finally, there's the question of judgment. During the campaign of 2000, terrorism was barely discussed, and yet seven months into George W. Bush's first term, 9/11 defined and consumed his presidency. Voters understand the capriciousness of life and select someone they can trust to handle the unknown and unpredictable.
That's why Romney's comments after the tragedy in Libya did so much damage. He seemed panicky, not poised. Conservative commentator Peggy Noonan skewered his misstep: "I belong to the old school of thinking that in times of great drama and heightened crisis ... discretion is the better way to go."
It's way too early to concede the president a second term. But it's not too early to say that Romney has a trust problem. And it's hard to see how he can solve it.