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Romney’s ‘Empathy Gap’

Mitt Romney has an empathy problem. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that 49 percent of respondents think that President Obama “better understands the economic problems people in this country are having.” Only 37 percent believe that Mr. Romney does. This echoes a finding from my own research: in a January YouGov poll, 51 percent said they believed that the phrase “cares about people like me” describes President Obama well, while 41 percent said that about Mr. Romney. And in a later poll, the empathy gap widened, with only 33 percent saying they believed that Mr. Romney cared about people like them. Perceptions of empathy are also correlated with whether people currently favor Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama.

But is the empathy gap the central obstacle to Mr. Romney’s campaign? Some commentators suggest that it is. On Tuesday, Chris Cilliza and Aaron Blake of The Washington Post said:

In our mind, tracking how the two candidates perform on this question between now and November is the single best measure (or at least one of them) of how the race will turn out. …  Romney must — must — close the empathy gap to win this fall.

This view is predicated on a belief that Americans vote based on their perceptions of the candidates as people:

Presidential elections are rarely won and lost on policy. Voters instead tend to choose the person they most want to be president based on who they like. And that feeling is heavily influenced by which of the candidates they believe best understands their hopes and dreams.

Political science research presents a far more qualified view, however.

In reality, Republicans win all the time without closing the empathy gap. This is because Democratic candidates are generally perceived as more empathetic — more likely to “care about people like me” — than Republican candidates, regardless of who wins. Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H. W. Bush in 1988 and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 were all perceived as less empathetic than their Democratic opponents. Danny Hayes, a political scientist, has shown that political parties come to “own” certain traits just like they “own” certain issues, and empathy is a “Democratic” trait. (By contrast, Republicans own “leadership,” at least in recent presidential races.) To be sure, Mr. Hayes shows that candidates benefit when voters come to view them favorably on trait dimensions that their party does not own. This might give Mr. Romney an incentive to feel some voters’ pain. Indeed, in February, Rick Santorum was, counter to stereotype, perceived as no less empathetic than Mr. Obama, so perhaps Mr. Romney could shift perceptions in his favor. But history shows that perceived empathy is no requirement for victory.

More generally, voters’ perceptions of candidates as people are not necessarily consequential to presidential election outcomes. In part, this is because perceptions of candidates are more a consequence than a cause of voting. Rather than objectively evaluate the candidates’ personal qualities, many if not most voters simply profess to like the candidate running in their preferred party and dislike the other party’s candidate. For example, according to my analysis of YouGov polls, 83 percent of Democrats view Mr. Obama as empathetic, but only 14 percent see Mr. Romney this way. Republicans have the opposite view: 82 percent view Mr. Romney as empathetic, but only 25 percent see Mr. Obama this way. Like most perceptions of candidates, perceptions of their traits are rife with partisan bias.

Furthermore, perceptions of candidates’ personalities aren’t necessarily consequential because there are many potential trait dimensions on which voters could evaluate candidates — honesty, leadership, empathy   — and across these different dimensions, voters’ assessments may not help any one candidate. A candidate’s empathy advantage could be offset by a leadership disadvantage. Thus, the total effect of these trait perceptions on the election’s outcome would be small. This is exactly what the political scientist Larry Bartels found in a study of the presidential elections from 1980 to 2000. He wanted to know how these elections might have turned out if perceptions of the candidates’ traits had differed. So he simulated hypothetical elections — one in which the two candidates’ advantages and disadvantages on every trait dimension were erased. In other words, he made all the gaps — empathy and otherwise — disappear. What happened?

Not much. Across the six elections, the average change in the election’s outcome was 1.6 points. In no single election, except perhaps 2000’s, was the shift large enough to affect the outcome. In many elections, the results ran explicitly counter to the prevailing narratives of the campaign. Mr. Bartels is worth quoting in full here:

Ronald Reagan, the “great communicator” and consummate actor, had a net advantage of only 1 percentage point over Jimmy Carter in 1980 and a net advantage of less than 1 percentage point over Walter Mondale in 1984. Michael Dukakis, widely regarded as cold and politically inept, appears here to have been the only Democratic presidential candidate to enjoy a more favorable personal image than his Republican opponent. And Bill Clinton, a “once-in-a-lifetime political performer,” appears to have had the worst personal image of any presidential candidate in recent American history, at least as measured by the impact of trait assessments on electoral outcomes.

These small effects make sense if trait assessments are shaped by more fundamental political predispositions, like party identification, which themselves are the real movers of vote choice, and if a candidate’s advantages on some dimensions are offset by disadvantages on others.

So does that mean that Mr. Romney can just give up and accept his empathy gap? Maybe, maybe not. But the answer will certainly depend on how he is perceived on other dimensions relative to Mr. Obama — to say nothing of the many other factors that may prove more consequential in November. For example, voters’ assessments of the economy have improved but are hardly positive. Mr. Romney may be able to argue successfully that economic conditions under President Obama haven’t been good and aren’t improving fast enough. And all the empathy in the world probably won’t help Mr. Obama win if there’s a double-dip recession.

In general, be wary of any claim that there is a single path to vi
ctory, particularly if that path involves a candidate’s personality.

John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is one of the authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”