The GOP’s empathy deficit and when it matters

By Meredith Conroy

This week at The Fix, Chris Cillizza’s Washington Post blog, reporter Aaron Blake published “Hilary Clinton’s problem is honesty. The GOP’s is empathy.” Blake reports that a recent Washington Post-ABC poll finds respondents to be untrusting of the former New York Senator, and Secretary of State; just 41 percent think Clinton is honest. Compared to Jeb Bush, The Post shows Clinton to have a considerable honesty perception deficit. Yet in terms of perception of empathy (“Clinton/Bush understands the problems of people like you”), Bush trails Clinton by quite a large margin.

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Blake also points out that the empathy deficit for the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, Mitt Romney, was present. Again, Blake cites ABC polling data. Had data been available, or had Blake looked back even further, he would find that his assertion that the GOP has an empathy problem would go a long long way back–back at least to 1984, when the American National Election Studies (ANES) began asking respondents to rank presidential candidates’ perceived empathy. Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 7.05.03 PM Without exception, Democratic presidential nominees have been viewed as more empathetic than their Republican opponents since ANES began asking respondents to rank the major party presidential candidates. That is a whopping 28 year stronghold. It is speculated that this trait monopoly, or ownership, of empathy by the Democrats is derived from the Democrats issue ownership (Petrocik 1996) of a more welfare oriented issue agenda. This case is made in a 2005 article published in the American Journal of Political Science, by Danny Hayes. Hayes suggests that related to the ownership of particular issues by Democrats and Republicans would be ownership of particular traits. Given the view that Democrats are more skilled at dealing with social welfare, and Republicans are more skilled at issues of national defense (established by Petrocik 1996), trait associations for candidates from these parties would be affected. Indeed, Hayes found a likely correspondence; in looking at American National Election Studies (ANES) survey data from 1984 to 2004, he found that Democratic candidates were more often seen as empathetic, which is a trait necessary for dealing with social welfare issues. The table above is merely updated to reflect the last 2 elections, and supports the conclusions Hayes drew in the 2005 article.

The ANES survey which asks respondents to rank the nominees on perceptions of empathy also asks respondents to rank the candidates on three additional traits: leadership, integrity, and competence. While the monopoly is not quite as strong, Republican presidential nominees are more often viewed to be stronger leaders.

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Which trait is more important to voters? According to research conducted by Holian and Prsyby published in Presidential Studies Quarterly (2014), Republican voters are more likely to weigh the traits of strong leadership and integrity more heavily than empathy and competence. On the contrary, Democrats are more likely to weigh the traits of empathy and competence more heavily when evaluating presidential nominees. For Independents, leadership and empathy are the most important characteristics. Thus, party identification differences in trait importance influence the characteristics on which we evaluate presidential candidates.

But the context also is likely to moderate the degree to which voters weigh the importance of candidates’ personality traits. As Holian and Prysby recognize in their article, in 2008, where unemployment rates were still relatively high, and an economic recovery was mostly absent for the majority of Americans, the context was one where a more compassionate and empathetic candidate could capitalize. McCain was unable to be that candidate in 2008, and in 2012 Romney also fell short. For Romney, his 47 percent remarks would prevent him from ever being seen as a compassionate candidate, for most American voters. The “47 percent” remarks refer to a statement Romney made at a private fundraising event in May of the election year, at a donor’s home in Boca Raton, FL, where Romney was caught on tape as saying that 47 percent of the country would vote for Obama because they are reliant on the government, and that it was not his job “to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” The video did not make national headlines until Mother Jones published a story and a link to the video on September 17th, just two months before the election. Once the major news outlets became aware of the video, much of Romney’s character coverage focused on what the remarks said about Romney as an individual, and whether a person so callous and incapable of understanding almost half of the country would make a good president. The focus on his 47 percent remarks shielded him from the association with empathy. And as Holian and Prysby (2014) recognize, in 2012 the political context lent itself to a candidate who was more empathic. Holian and Prysby explain,

…Obama was fortunate in that in a political context when empathy was especially likely to be important given the country’s continuing economic struggles, he faced a Republican candidate who was particularly easy to caricature as out of touch with ordinary voters, and insensitive to the problems they faced (2014, 502).

Thus, in a political environment where domestic issues are prioritized, empathy in particular may be a more desirable and politically valuable trait, than when these issues are less of a priority to voters. On the contrary, where issues of national defense and security top the agenda, strong leadership is likely to be weighed more heavily, which is a Republican advantage.

Yet even if the presidential election issue agenda turns out to be more focused on national defense and security, Clinton has done her due diligence in working to shore up the deficit her Party label, and biological sex, invoke.  For example, once elected to the Senate in 2006 Hillary Clinton quickly sought a seat on the Armed Services committee. Many commentators suggested the move was a strategic one for Clinton, who was assumed to have presidential ambitions, to shore up expertise and credibility on issues of defense, which are not only pertinent to US Senators, but also to presidents. Her appointment as Secretary of State further bolsters her perceived expertise on these issues, and puts Clinton in a pretty good place, to run for president. Clinton knew her sex was a possible liability, long before her 2008 election bid, where sexism was ever-present.

To overcome the perception that they lack credibility in dealing with issues such as national security or defense, women, especially Democrats, engage in “compensatory strategies” (Swers 2007). In an analysis of Congressional sponsorship records for the 104th Congress, Swers (2007) found female Democrats to be more active sponsors of homeland security bills than male Democrats and Republicans. Swers suggests that, “the importance of national security to voters creates a political imperative for women to countervail stereotypes about women’s ability to provide leadership on defense issues” (563). As a response to heightened interest in issues of national security and defense, Democratic women are likely to beef up their credentials in order to be perceived as capable and competent to deal with these issues. Clinton has done better than most women on this front. 

In this manner, if empathy and compassion are low on the list of priorities for voters in 2016, which are more strongly associated with Democrats (and women) Clinton may still have an edge, given her political experience. But if integrity and honest are voters’ top priorities, Clinton is probably in trouble. Republicans would be wise to stay away from a candidate who forfeits their integrity advantage, such as Chris Christie.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of Political Science at California State University San Bernardino. Her book, Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, publishes in October 2015. In this book, Conroy discusses the role of the media as interpreters of presidential candidates’ personalities, and the potential consequences. 

One thought on “The GOP’s empathy deficit and when it matters

  1. Could say that problem of both parties is “honesty,” a willingness to say what they think regardless of who hears. This may be more a refusal to grow up and recognize that some people think differently; whatever gets a news byte is not always positive. Often, it is negative, and tarnishes the person who said it; it’s as if they cannot help themselves. The desire to shock is more important than the desire to think!

    Surely, a President elect should exhibit the power to think more than shock!


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