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August 13, 2012

State of the Statehouse: Paul Ryan has a great head of hair … that can’t hurt him

INDIANAPOLIS —

I have a family member who goes to the same hair stylist as Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman just named as Mitt Romney’s running mate.

It may not sway her vote one way or the other, but the Republican Ryan has a great head of hair — all dark and thick to go with those blue eyes and square jaw. He looks likes some of my Irish relatives on my father’s side.

My late grandmother, Rose O’Connor, would have taken an instant liking to him. Not because of his controversial plan for cutting Social Security benefits or raising the retirement age, but because he’s an Irish-American.

The same reason she liked Democratic President John Kennedy and almost anybody else whose ancestors came from the Old Sod.

Why we vote for the people we do is still a bit of a mystery.

We’d like to think it has to do with the policies they preach, the promises they make and our perception of what impact they’ll have on the economy.

But there’s an undeniable “likeability” factor that plays a role, too.

Charm by itself isn’t enough. I spent an afternoon recently with Rupert Boneham, the Libertarian candidate for Indiana governor who is better known as the scraggly bearded, wild-haired, tie-dyed castaway from the reality TV series “Survivor.” He’s likeable: In 2004, he won $1 million when “Survivor” fans overwhelmingly picked him as their favorite.

I saw Boneham work an Indiana State Fair crowd. He dispensed more handshakes and hugs than any candidate I’d ever seen. He’s immensely personable.

I saw fair-goers, who after meeting him, peeled off from their shirts the stickers from the other candidates’ campaigns and replaced them with “Rupert for Governor” stickers.

There’s a big jump, of course, from a sticker on your shirt to a ballot cast.

Still, the likeability factor in politics is undeniable and it has to do with the feeling of connection: Does that candidate have any idea of what it’s like to be me?

Paul Ryan’s running mate is struggling with that connection. A Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll recently surveyed voters in three critical swing states. According to the poll, those most likely to vote in all three states viewed President Obama as more caring about their needs and problems than billionaire businessman Mitt Romney.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, showed the same kind of thing. Despite his dismal economic numbers and poor approval ratings for his economic policies, Obama’s likeability numbers gives him an edge over Romney. In oversimple terms, more people could see themselves having a beer with Obama than with Romney.

But not too many more. The Pew survey found Obama’s personal favorability ratings are at 50 percent, compared with his 45 percent unfavorable ratings. Obama’s personal favorability ratings are lower than most presidential candidates in recent elections.

Likeability is a quirky thing. It will be interesting to see how Ryan plays into the mix. He’s been divisive as a Tea Party darling with a disdain for compromise. But according to national reports that followed the announcement of his candidacy, even his political opponents say he’s likeable.

And he has a great head of hair.

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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