Our Common Good

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.

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