As Republicans peered bleary-eyed and hung over at the 2012 exit polls, one unforgiving figure stared remorselessly back at them.
On issues, the GOP had successfully made their case to the electorate. Exit polls showed that voters trusted the Republican nominee more to manage the economy. The electorate saw Mitt Romney as the candidate who shared their values, was a strong leader, and had a “vision for the future.” Where Barack Obama made the more compelling case was on the matter of which candidate “cares about people like me.” By a tremendous 63 points, voters thought Obama understood them and the problems they faced every day.
Despite the fact that voters saw Romney as the more capable executive, they didn’t think he gave a whit for their plights. That was enough to deliver the election to Obama.
Flash forward to today, and a new ABC News/Washington Post poll again raises the issue of empathy and which candidates are better suited to convince voters that he or she “cares” about them the most.
The ABC/Post poll found that Hillary Clinton viewed far more favorably by the electorate than any of her prospective GOP challengers, but this finding is largely dismissable. At 49 percent favorable to 46 percent unfavorable, Clinton is no longer the omnipotent colossus she once was. Meanwhile, every Republican candidate’s favorability rating is underwater and by a healthy margin, but that is largely due to the fact that Republicans are bitterly divided over which GOP figure is best suited to lead the party in 2016. It’s safe to expect the party’s eventual nominee’s favorability rating to rebound substantially after the primaries are over.
The most interesting element of this poll was a question regarding Clinton’s perceived compassion and understanding. Like Romney, voters in this survey said they thought Clinton is a strong leader and that she has “new ideas for the country’s future.” But unlike Obama (or Bill Clinton, for that matter), the prospective 2016 electorate does not think that she feels their pain.
When voters were asked if Clinton “understands the problems of people like you,” 47 percent said that she did. Another 48 percent, however, disagreed. What’s more, voters are split at 46 percent on whether Clinton is trustworthy, and only 48 to 47 percent believe the former secretary of state shares their values.
This is a particularly favorable poll toward the former secretary of state. Many surveys have found Clinton’s trustworthiness ratings tanking following the revelations regarding her clandestine email account and the Clinton Foundation’s unscrupulous fundraising practices. What’s more, significant majorities back Clinton over every GOP candidate in this survey’s head-to-head matchups. For Clinton to underperform on terrain that traditionally favors Democratic candidates like the matter of empathy is revealing.
The Democratic Party can be expected to pull out all the stops to frame the GOP nominee as effete and protective of the status enjoyed by the richest Americans. It’s as predictable as the sunrise. But that will be complicated by Clinton’s largess, her family’s preeminence as virtual royalty for over two decades, and her mendacity about all things not excluding her financial circumstances (see: “dead broke).
In the field of prospective candidates, only Jeb Bush would cede this advantage. Virtually every GOP candidate save the former Florida governor comes from relatively modest origins and has a claim to self-made status. The GOP’s advantage on this issue may not undo Clinton entirely, but it presents an obstacle on her path to the nomination that her Democratic predecessors never encountered.