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The political empathy gap

Presidential candidates try to prove they care about people, not just policies

President Donald Trump talks with John Rode, the former owner of Rode’s Camera Shop, on Tuesday in Kenosha, Wis. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

The political empathy gap

In a desperate attempt to quiet a heckler at a campaign rally in 1992, Bill Clinton used what became a political catchphrase: “I feel your pain.”

His words came to represent much more in presidential politics—that year and beyond. As the United States struggled to recover from a recession, Clinton exploited the perception that President George H.W. Bush was aloof and uncaring about domestic concerns.

“People are hurting all over this country,” Clinton said on his way to defeating Bush.

This year, as the nation grapples with a pandemic, racial strife, and economic turmoil, President Donald Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, are vying to identify with those hurting.

“The candidate who speaks best to those who are feeling themselves to be suffering and beset will win the ‘empathy’ contest,” Wilfred McClay, who holds the Blankenship chair in the history of liberty at the University of Oklahoma, said in an email.

This week, Trump and Biden made separate visits to Kenosha, Wis., where protests, riots, and the arrest of a white teenager suspected of killing two demonstrators have roiled the city in the wake of the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake, an African American man.

Earlier this summer, Biden accused Trump of having “failed the most important test of being the American president. The duty to care for you, for all of us.” Trump hit back at the Republican National Convention, saying Biden only offered “empty words of empathy for workers.” He spoke about manufacturing jobs lost in trade deals that Biden had backed and said workers “didn’t want Joe Biden’s hollow words of empathy—they wanted their jobs back.”

In 2016, a Quinnipiac University poll found 44 percent of possible voters believed Trump “[cared] about average Americans,” while 53 percent thought the same of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Four years later, Americans view Trump slightly less favorably—but Biden fares much better than Clinton did. In a May Quinnipiac poll, 61 percent of likely voters said Biden cared about average Americans, while only 42 percent said the same of Trump. By July, the gap widened to 22 points: Quinnipiac found 59 percent of voters believed Biden cared, while only 37 percent said the same of Trump.

Trump has pointed to the pre-coronavirus booming economy as evidence he cares for the country.

“He has clearly connected with many struggling middle- and working-class people precisely by expressing his concern for their diminished life-prospects in the global economy,” McClay said.

Meanwhile, Biden has used his personal story to project empathy. He has talked of losing his wife and daughter in a car accident at age 30. His oldest son, Beau, died in 2015 from brain cancer. Speaking about loss and grief seems natural for him. But Biden also faces headwinds on the issue.

“It’s important for a leader not only to say that he feels empathy but to show it; and unless Biden finds a way to get out of his basement and campaign in a more vigorous and direct way, his words of empathy won’t carry much conviction,” McClay wrote. “I think he has a steep mountain to climb in this respect.”

Past elections show perceptions of a candidate’s empathy can predict the eventual outcome of the race. In 2012, GOP candidate Mitt Romney faced an early 16-point empathy gap and never managed to close it. Exit polls showed voters considered Barack Obama more “in touch” with average Americans.

In 1932, President Herbert Hoover could not avert the economic decline that led to the Great Depression nor reassure a frightened American public. Challenger Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned on a message of restoring public confidence.

Pastor and author Alan Cross said the country seems to be crying out for understanding and compassion, but the real solution starts at home.

“Our politicians do what they are rewarded in doing,” Cross said. “If they can win an election, if they’re rewarded through tribalism and camps and using empathy and compassion as a weapon to enhance one group at expense of another, then they do that. If all of us say it’s important we care for all people … that has to be a value that is rebuilt and reemerges in our cities and in our towns and in our states, and then we demand that in our leaders, as well.”

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a former political reporter for WORLD’s Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate.


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