Who Cares? Explaining Perceptions of Compassion in Candidates for Office

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7

Data Availability

Data and replication code for the production of the analysis in this paper is available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/TGMF6R.

Notes

  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.

References

  1. Aaldering, L., & Vliegenthart, R. (2016). Political leaders and the media. Can we measure political leadership images in newspapers using computer-assisted content analysis? Quality and Quantity,50, 1871–1905.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Achen, C. H., & Bartels, L. M. (2016). Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Ansolabehere, S., & Rivers, D. (2013). Cooperative survey research. Annual Review of Political Science,16(2), 307–329.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bartels, L. M. (2002). Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior,24(2), 117–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Batson, C. D. (1987). Prosocial motivation: Is it ever truly altruistic? In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 65–122). New York, NY: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Batson, C. D., & Ahmad, N. Y. (2009). Using empathy to improve intergroup attitudes and relations. Social Issues and Policy Review,3(1), 141–177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Batson, C. D., Fultz, J., & Schoenrade, P. (1987). Distress and empathy: Two qualitatively distinct vicarious emotions with different motivational consequences. Journal of Personality,55(1), 19–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bean, C., & Mughan, A. (1989). Leadership effects in parliamentary elections in Australia and Britain. American Political Science Review,83(4), 1165–1179.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Berinsky, A. J., Huber, G. A., & Lenz, G. S. (2012). Evaluating online labor markets for experimental research: Amazon.com's mechanical turk. Political Analysis, 20(3), 351–368.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Bernhardt, B. C., & Singer, T. (2012). The neural basis of empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience,35, 1–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Bittner, A. (2011). Platform or personality? The role of party leaders in elections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Campbell, A., Converse, P., Miller, W., & Stokes, D. (1960). The American voter. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Campbell, J. E. (1983). Candidate image evaluations: Influence and rationalization in presidential primaries. American Politics Quarterly,11, 293–313.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Campbell, R., & Cowley, P. (2014). What voters want: Reaction to candidate characteristics in a survey experiment. Political Studies,62(4), 745–765.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Carver, C. (2004). Negative affects deriving from the behavioral approach system. Emotion,4(1), 3–22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Clark, M. A., Robertson, M. M., & Young, S. (2019). ‘I feel your pain’: A critical review of organizational research on empathy. Journal of Organizational Behavior,40(2), 166–192.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Clifford, S. (2014). Linking issue stances and trait inferences: A theory of moral exemplification. Journal of Politics,76(3), 698–710.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Clifford, S. (2018). Reassessing the structure of presidential character. Electoral Studies,54, 1–308.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Cooper, R. K., & Sawaf, A. (1997). Executive EQ: Emotional intelligence in leadership and organizations. New York: Grosset/Putman.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2016). Empathy: A review of the concept. Emotion Review,8, 144–153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Dafoe, A., Zhang, B., & Caughey, D. (2018). Information equivalence in survey experiments. Political Analysis,26(4), 399–416.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,44(1), 113–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Davis, M. H. (1996). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Davis, M. H. (2009). Empathy. In H. T. Reis & S. Sprecher (Eds.), Encyclopedia of human relationships (pp. 516–520). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Dawson, M. C. (1994). Behind the mule: Race and class in African-American politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans know about politics and why it matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Dolan, K. (2014). Gender stereotypes, candidate evaluations and voting for women candidates: What really matters? Political Research Quarterly.,67(1), 96–107.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Dowell, N. M., & Berman, J. S. (2013). Therapist nonverbal behavior and perceptions of empathy, alliance, and treatment credibility. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 23(2), 158–165.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Eisenberg, N. (2000). Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual Review of Political Psychology,51, 665–697.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Fenno, R. F., Jr. (1978). Home style: House members in their districts. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Fox, R. L., & Oxley, Z. (2003). Gender stereotyping in state executive elections. Journal of Politics.,65(3), 833–850.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Funk, C. L. (1996). The impact of scandal on candidate evaluations: An experimental test of the role of candidate traits. Political Behavior,18(1), 1–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Funk, C. L. (1999). Bringing the candidate into models of candidate evaluation. Journal of Politics,61(3), 700–720.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Gay, C., Hochschild, J., & White, A. (2016). Americans’ belief in linked fate: Does the measure capture the concept? Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics,1(1), 114–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. George, J. M. (2000). Emotions and leadership: The role of emotional intelligence. Human Relations,53(8), 1027–1055.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Green, D. P., Palmquist, B., & Schickler, E. (2002). Partisan hearts and minds: Political parties and the social identities of voters. New Haven, CT: Yale UP.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Greene, S. (2001). The role of character assessments in presidential approval. American Politics Research,29(2), 196–210.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Hahl, O., Minjae, K., & Sivan, E. Z. (2018). The authentic appeal of the lying demogogue: Proclaiming the deeper truth about political illegitimacy. American Sociological Review,83(1), 1–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Hayes, D. (2005). Candidate qualities through a partisan lens: A theory of trait ownership. American Journal of Political Science,49, 908–923.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Hein, G., & Singer, T. (2008). I feel how you feel but not always: The empathic brain and its modulation. Current Opinion in Neurobiology,18(2), 153–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Hibbing, J. R., & Theiss-Morse, E. (2002). Stealth democracy: Americans’ beliefs about how government should work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Holian, D. B., & Prysby, C. (2014). Candidate character traits in the 2012 presidential election. Presidential Studies Quarterly,44(3), 484–505.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Holian, D. B., & Prysby, C. (2015). Candidate character traits in presidential elections. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Huddy, L., & Terkildsen, N. (1993). Gender stereotypes and the perception of male and female candidates. American Journal of Political Science.,37(1), 119–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Jardina, A. (2019). White identity politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Johnston, R., Hagen, M., & Jamieson, K. H. (2004). The 2000 presidential election and the foundations of party politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Jones, P. E. (2014). Revisiting stereotypes of non-white politicians’ ideological and partisan orientations. American Politics Research.,42(2), 283–310.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Karl, K. L., & Ryan, T. J. (2016). When are stereotypes about black candidates applied? An experimental test. Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics,1(2), 253–279.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Kinder, D. R. (1986). Presidential character revisited. In R. R. Lau & D. O. Sears (Eds.), Political cognition (pp. 233–255). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  52. King, A. (2002). Leaders’ personalities and the outcomes of democratic elections. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Kriesi, H. (2012). Personalization of national election campaigns. Party Politics,8(6), 825–844.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Lewis, K. M. (2000). When leaders display emotion: How followers respond to negative emotional expression of male and female leaders. Journal of Organizational Behavior,21, 221–234.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Lodge, M., & Taber, C. S. (2013). The rationalizing voter. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Lupia, A. (1994). Shortcuts versus encyclopedias: Information and voting behavior in California insurance reform elections. American Political Science Review,88(1), 63–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Mansbridge, J. (1999). Should blacks represent blacks and women represent women? A contingent ‘Yes’. Journal of Politics,61(3), 628–657.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Mayhew, D. (1974). Congress: The electoral connection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  60. McAllister, I. (2007). The personalization of politics. In R. Dalton, H. Klingeman (Eds.), The oxford handbook of political behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  61. McCann, J. A. (1990). Changing electoral contexts and changing candidate images during the 1984 presidential campaign. American Politics Quarterly,18(April), 123–140.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. McDermott, M. L. (1998). Race and gender cues in low-information elections. Political Research Quarterly.,51(4), 895–918.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. McDermott, M. L. (2005). Candidate occupations and voter information shortcuts. The Journal of Politics,67(1), 201–219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. McDonald, J., Karol, D., & Mason, L. (2019). “An inherited money dude from Queens county”: How unseen candidate characteristics affect voter perceptions. Political Behavior,. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09527-y.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Nussbaum, M. (1996). For love of country: Debating the limits of patriotism. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Piston, S. (2010). How explicit racial prejudice hurt Obama in the 2008 Election. Political Behavior.,34(2), 431–451.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Pitkin, H. (1967). The concept of representation. Los Angeles: University of Press.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Popkin, S. L. (1994). The reasoning voter: Communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Sanbonmatsu, K. (2002). Gender stereotypes and vote choice. American Journal of Political Science,46(1), 20–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Sirin, C. V., Valentino, N. A., & Villalobos, J. D. (2016). Group empathy theory: The effect of group empathy on US intergroup attitudes and behavior in the context of immigration threats. The Journal of Politics,78(3), 893–908.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Slote, M. (2001). Morals from motives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Stewart, M., & Clark, H. (1992). The (Un)Importance of party leaders: Leader images and party choice in the 1987 British election. Journal of Politics.,54, 447–470.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Stimson, J. A. (1991). Public opinion in America: Moods, cycles, and swings. Boulder: Westview.

    Google Scholar 

  74. Sullivan, J. L., Aldrich, J. H., Borgida, E., & Rahn, W. M. (1990). Candidate appraisal and human nature: Man and superman in the 1984 election. Political Psychology,1, 459–484.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Swain, C. M. (1993). Black faces, black interests: The representation of African Americans in Congress. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Tate, K. (2003). Black faces in the mirror: African Americans and their representatives in the U.S. congress. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  77. Turner, J., Hogg, M., Oakes, P., Reicher, S., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Cambridge: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  78. Valentino, N., Brader, T., Groenendyk, E., Gregorowicz, K., & Hutchings, V. (2011). Election night’s alright for fighting: The role of emotions in political participation. Journal of Politics,73(1), 156–170.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Wattenberg, M. (1998). The decline of American political parties, 1952–1996. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  80. Yukl, G. A. (1998). Leadership in organizations (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  81. Zaki, J. (2014). Empathy: A motivated account. Psychological Bulletin,140, 1608–1647.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jared McDonald.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary file1 (DOCX 229 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Keywords

  • Voting behavior
  • Candidate traits
  • Empathy
  • Survey experiments