Who Cares? Explaining Perceptions of Compassion in Candidates for Office


Although prior research establishes the important effect perceptions of compassion have on vote choice, no systematic research examines why some candidates are perceived as more caring than others. In an era where television and social media put candidates’ personalities front and center, the lack of research on this topic is problematic. In this article, I explain why voters view some candidates as more caring than others. I argue that voters view politicians as compassionate when there is a commonality to link them. A commonality demonstrates an empathetic connection, or the ability to understand another’s feelings. This, in turn, convinces voters that the politician is sympathetic, or willing to do something to help. Without an empathetic connection, claims of sympathy by politicians will be viewed with greater levels of skepticism. I generate a classification system for the sources of commonality that link voters with politicians, including shared experiences, shared emotions, and shared identities. Using three survey experiments, I show how candidates can build empathic bonds with voters and better their chances of election.

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Data Availability

Data and replication code for the production of the analysis in this paper is available at


  1. 1.

    Chicago Sun-Times, June 10, 2014.

  2. 2.

    Scholars find SSI samples yield accurate results that replicate relationships found using probability-based sampling methods (Ansolabehere and Rivers 2013; Berinsky et al. 2012). Analyses are weighted on age, race, education, and income.

  3. 3.

    For analyses looking at co-partisans and out-partisans, I exclude independent respondents who do not lean one toward one party. I do this because it is not always clear why some citizens reject the party labels, though it may be that independents are simply skeptical of both parties. Categorizing independents as out-partisans, however, does not change the results I present here.

  4. 4.

    Black respondents were recruited via the platform TurkPrime, which allows researchers to target particular demographic groups for an additional price. The procedure yielded 300 black and 365 white subjects.

  5. 5.

    I do not include this measure in Experiment 3 because I do not anticipate that manipulating the race of the candidate should solely affect perceptions of compassion. Rather, I argue that our understanding of character is limited if we do not consider salient identities like race.

  6. 6.

    The repeated measures approach normally involves examining the same individual at two points in time. Here, I duplicate each observation in the dataset, treating the value on perceptions of compassion as one measurement and the value on perceptions of knowledge as a separate measurement within the same person. I then run a model to see whether these measurements are distinguishable from one another. Full results are in Tables A2 and A3 of Online Appendix.

  7. 7.

    To consider this possibility, I tested an interaction term between the ideology of white Democrats and their perceptions of the white or black candidate. Although more liberal whites were slightly more positive toward the black candidate, the effects ultimately were not statistically significant. The results of this analysis can be found in Table A10 of Online Appendix.

  8. 8.

    The Hill, “Sanders rips Clinton over Goldman Sachs ties.” January 17, 2016.


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Special thanks to Michael Hanmer, Alauna Safarpour, Lilliana Mason, Antoine Banks, Sarah Croco, Patrick Wohlfarth, Zachary Scott, Irwin Morris, Heather Hicks, Jason Windett, Lisa Ching, and the American Politics Workshop at the University of Maryland. I also owe a huge thank you to the anonymous reviewers who provided helpful feedback and greatly enhanced the contribution of this article.

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McDonald, J. Who Cares? Explaining Perceptions of Compassion in Candidates for Office. Polit Behav (2020) doi:10.1007/s11109-020-09592-8

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  • Voting behavior
  • Candidate traits
  • Empathy
  • Survey experiments