There's a persuasive school of thought that says likability is a primary factor in who wins elections. It's the "who would you rather have a beer with?" argument.
This assertion bugs people who think our ballots should be cast on the issues, but likability can make us agree with others. When we find a person charming, we tend to emphasize in our minds the areas where we share beliefs and minimize our differences. When we dislike someone, we do the opposite.
Against this backdrop, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney come to Hofstra University tonight. There they will face the biggest test of their empathy and ability to relate to the everyday voter. The citizen-questioners, as proxies for all of us, will ask about foreign and domestic issues, and the candidates are expected to respond directly to them. This ability to assess connectivity is why town hall debates are the most viewed format.
And the questions will come from Nassau County residents who are uncommitted voters. Their worries will truly be our worries, their points of view ones we can relate to.
The divisiveness our nation faces right now is extraordinary. The evening at Hofstra offers whichever candidate wins the election an important opportunity: the chance to persuade even those who won't vote for him to like him a bit more, and be somewhat supportive of him. For the winner to govern effectively, he'll need a mandate that extends beyond support from those who vote for him. He'll also need a degree of respect and understanding from those who cast ballots against him.
Tonight, average Americans on Long Island will look our candidates in the eyes and ask how they would fix the problems plaguing us. The candidates will look back into their eyes, and the eyes of the viewers at home. Their answers need to be factual, but also caring and empathetic, because the winner is going to need more than 50.1 percent support to heal our nation's problems.