There are usually three big questions that pundits think will decide the election.
a. Whom do voters prefer on the economy?
b. Whom do they prefer on jobs?
c. Whom do they like better?
But here’s one that might be just as important -- who's viewed as more empathetic?
In political terms, empathy is usually described as “caring about the needs and concerns of everyday people like you", and is hugely influential because it logically follows that if someone cares about your needs, they'll try to fix them.
Thus, it's a more important measure than simple likability. After all, everyone likes Ronald McDonald, but we all know he's trying to kill us. If, however, he had empathy, he'd still be likable, but he wouldn't be trying to kill us, and we'd let him build in our neighborhoods.
Thus, empathy is, arguably, much more important to voters than the more popular measure of "likability".
So where do things stand right now on empathy?
Well, Barack Obama is thoroughly dominating the attribute ( e.g. +13% in a CBS poll, +31% in a Pew poll, +10% in ABC’s poll, and +10% in a USA Today poll of swing states, to name just a few).
Further, there's a really fantastic little window into what's going on that we can peer into.
Since it has such great internals, let's go to last week’s Quinnipiac poll of Virginia for a particularly interesting example of how this might play out.
Mitt Romney led Obama in a head-to-head among those making $50K-$100K/year, 53%-43%. That's an impressive, undeniable 10% lead.
BUT... those very same voters who gave Romney a 10% lead were far more likely to say Obama "cares about the needs and problems of people like” them.
53% of voters in that group said Obama cared, while only 42% thought the same about Romney. And that's from a sample of voters who gave Romney a 10% lead!
So, in other words, in Virginia, a large number of people who are voting for Romney nevertheless think Obama cares more about their problems.
That brings up an interesting question -- can Romney win this election even if voters think Obama cares more about their needs and problems?
It's very possible that he can, but I wouldn't bet on it.
To shed some light, think of Plato’s classic example of choosing either a vampire or a nurse to draw blood from you (He called this "The Nice Nurse vs. The Competent Vampire Dialogue".... Maybe).
The “Nice Nurse”, theoretically, has better bedside manner and can ask you about your favorite ride at Disneyland, what color your pet was growing up, what your favorite subject in school is – all that, while she pokes you.
But what if she sucks at poking, stabs at your arm indiscriminately, uses a dirty needle, and gave you a communicable disease last time you visited her?
The “Competent Vampire,” or as Plato called it Vampiros de Toyoto, on the other hand, literally lives (in an un-live kind of way) for this stuff and has been taking blood and taking it well for thousands of years. You won’t get a disease, you’ll get your complete blood count in twelve hours and be on your way. You might even watch America’s Got Talent later and text in a vote.
Whom do you choose?
At first blush, probably the vampire, right? The Nice Nurse might care more about you, but it’s just not worth it. You don’t want to see your blood all over her scrubs even once more.
Now… I’m not comparing Obama to a nurse that gives patients Hepatitis C, and I’m not comparing Romney with a vampire.
But the concept applies – for Romney to win, a lot of voters have to be willing to “turn down the nice, incompetent nurse” and go with “the competent vampire” they don’t particularly like (and polls show Romney still has a huge likability gap).
But is it realistic for voters to turn down the nurse for the vampire?
My guess is that quite a few who say they’ll pick the vampire will, in the end, go with the nurse.
Because people value bedside manner much more than they admit, and most people can convince themselves that the nurse will be a better poker this time, that they should just give her another chance and show a little faith. They’re pulling for her. If they catch a glimpse of a new diploma on her wall, they’re going all-in.
So, how should Romney combat this?
Well, he’s got a couple options.
First, he could remind people about the last four years they’ve spent with The Nice Nurse and ask: Why would she suddenly get better in year five? Don’t you remember what year one, two, three, and four were like?
That’s negative campaigning, and Romney and his allies have been doing quite a lot of it.
Second, Romney could make himself look a little better. Maybe he doesn’t have Robert Pattinson potential, but I’m sure there’s a range of acceptably good-looking vampires in the vampire literature, and Romney might be able to get voters to think, “Okay, I’ll open the window, shut my eyes, let the vampire swoop in, do his biting blood thing, and just get through it.”
That seems to be a fruitful avenue. It wouldn’t make the nice nurse’s smile any darker, but it would make it less compelling when contrasted with the new, more Thomas Kinkade-ish vampire.
Now again… I don’t think Obama is the Nice Nurse and Romney the Competent Vampire. I’m just pointing out that voters seem to have that perception.
I can’t think of a single, reputable poll of Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike that judged Romney more likable than Obama (if you can, please email me).
And Obama’s numbers on core issues are just bloody, bloody bad, especially with crucial independents.
According to a recent Fox News poll, indies give him a net -16% on the economy, -23% on the deficit, and -10% on health care, which happen to be the core issues in this economy.
The most recent CBS/New York Times poll showed Obama at a net -16% on the economy, and by 58%-28%, voters don’t think he’s delivered on the change he promised.
This election has often been painted as one pitting perceived likability vs. perceived competence, but as I said earlier, empathy could be much more important than likability and, thus, a crucial attribute to look at in future polls.
Finally, let me say this: I was going to quote Deepak Chopra on empathy, but decided not to.