Friday, April 5, 2013

The GOP Empathy Power Rankings

2012 proved that empathy is everything in a presidential race.

You probably don't need reminding, but on November 6, Mitt Romney nipped Barack Obama, head-to-head, on the economy, and also won voters who were most concerned with "leadership", "vision", and "values".

But famously, Obama annihilated him among those who wanted, above all, a caring president, and there were enough of those to keep the president in the White House.

Thus, when we think about the GOP and 2016, who really cares about anything except caring?

So let's take a look at which Republican candidates could theoretically cut into the empathy gap.

But before we do that, we'll arrive at each candidate's overall empathy score by measuring their empathy with a few different tests.

Is the candidate as caring and helpful as a lonely park ranger? (Photo: Wild Nature Images)

A. The "Park Ranger Who Gets Two Visitors a Day" Test

At some point in our lives, we've all decided to stop by a visitor's center at a historic site to use the bathroom.

If it's a fairly obscure historical site, there'll be a park ranger (standing by a bunch of pamphlets), who's only seen two people all day and desperately wants to talk.

On your way to the restroom, you'll be told about a trolley that leaves every two hours and passes by Millard Fillmore's childhood home, or about a cemetery where four veterans of the 102nd brigade from the Civil War are buried.

While you're still scampering to the restroom, you'll be told about historic reenactments of Washington's Crossing that happen in December, but unfortunately, it's April, so you should come back in December.

Finally, you'll make it to the restroom.

So what's the point of all this?

Whatever else you take from it, the park ranger is a friendly, caring person who desperately wants you to enjoy yourself.

Thus, the "Park Ranger Who Gets Two Visitors A Day" test measures how attentive and warm a candidate's body language, speech, and overall zeitgeist is.

Do they make you feel loved?

Does the candidate have an endearing flaw? (photo: Hubpages)

B. The "Gimpy Dog" Test

We often think of presidential candidates in terms of whether they can sympathize with us (e.g. Bill Clinton feeling our pain).

But to score really high on candidate empathy, the candidates have to provoke sympathy for themselves. An obvious example is Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire sob that turned around her entire campaign.

We sympathized with her, and because we saw her as vulnerable and hurt, it also made her appear more real and caring.

The truth is that empathy is a two-way street. If candidates reveal their struggles, voters sometimes move toward them out of a sense of solidarity. That's why some people think Chris Christie's weight could actually be a net win, particularly if he struggles to shed pounds, fails, and then ultimately succeeds.

So The Gimpy Dog Test measures how sympathetic and endearingly vulnerable the candidate is.

C. The Nordstrom Customer Service Test:

If anyone cares about the customer, it's Nordstrom.

Stories about their graciousness and care for customers abound.

In one legendary tale, a customer brings a pair of tires to Nordstrom, claims he bought them there, asks for a refund, and actually gets it (in case you haven't been there, Nordstrom does not sell tires, nor does Nordstrom Rack, for that matter).

Now... it doesn't really matter if the story is true or not. The mere fact that it's debatable shows how highly consumers regard this nice end of the mall to walk into.

A more recent, demonstrably true example of Nordstrom's empathy came when a customer lost her wedding ring while trying on clothes in the store. Three Nordstrom employees started hunting with her, and after quite a bit of sleuthing, found the ring in dirty, used vacuum cleaning bags.

When it comes to empathy, Nordstrom stands alone in responsiveness and impression management.

As far as candidates go, customer service is all about things like this -- does s/he work the rope line? Sign autographs? Actually listen at townhalls? All of those things convey empathy.

Can the candidate make a controversial program seem compassionate? (photo:  Stop the Drug War)

D. The "Needle Exchange Program" Test

Needle exchange programs are unbelievably controversial, and activists for and against the programs both claim that compassion drives them.

Advocates say junkies will use drugs, anyway, and they might as well do it safely. Opponents say it's compassionate to keep drugs away at all costs.

Well, in similar fashion, politics is compassionate in the eye of the beholder.

To some, it's compassionate to expand government services; to others it's exactly the opposite, and both sides claim compassion drives them.

The problem is -- you can't measure a candidate's empathy without looking at their ideology, and the truth of it is that voters generally consider the liberal idea of government to be the more compassionate. In fact, when George W. Bush rolled out "compassionate conservatism", it was exactly to combat that popular notion.

Thus, for the purposes of the empathy power rankings, we'll give priority to arguments that will probably strike voters as more compassionate, and face it: in the politics of a general election, John Kasich's decision to expand Medicaid is probably smart politics.

Could the candidate credibly hit the stage with this guy? (photo: Bill Ebbesen]

E. The Bruce Springsteen Test

Bruce Springsteen's dad worked as a bus driver -- when he worked at all. Usually, it was Bruce's mom who brought home the bacon, and as a secretary, it probably wasn't the best bacon.

Of course, Springsteen is now worth $200 million, but much of that is because he's retained the gritty, everyman roots that make you think of a bus driver before a private jet-setter.

Thus, the Bruce Springsteen Test measures the humility of your background, your career arc, and whether you know what it's like to stand with groceries bags while you wait for the bus in 20 degree weather.

So with all that, let's take a look at the power rankings.

1. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie 

The Park Ranger Who Gets Two Visits Per Day Test: 5/10

If Chris Christie were standing behind the counter in that visitor center, and you rolled in to pee, one of two things could happen.

First, he could easily shout "the bathroom is that way" (points in opposite direction) and do it in such a way that you'd think you were an idiot for supposing it was the other way.

Or, he could smile and laugh, "Hey, your pee break is to the left," and you'd have a nice chuckle because he was authentically acknowledging why you showed up at the visitor center in the first place.

The point is -- Christie could either be an abrasive park ranger or a refreshingly real one who adds zip to your experience. Thus, we have to give him a 5/10.

The Gimpy Dog Test: 8/10

For as acerbic as he can be, Chris Christie's very public struggle with weight is endearing, and even though he usually jokes about it, when he's vulnerable, it's almost heart-breaking and immediately makes you feel guilty for rolling out headlines like The New York Post did when Christie went to Israel: "The Whale at the Wall: Christie weighs in at Israel holy site."

Here's something else -- in this interview, Oprah notes how many women struggle, emotionally, with their weight, and Christie seems to viscerally understand that. Once again, that could be a point of connection between the two.

Needle Exchange Program Test: 8/10

Christie's public war and subsequent victory over the teachers union in a heavily Democratic state has been one of the most remarkable political stories of the past five years.

In fact, that kind of war would normally warrant a 2/10 on the Needle Exchange Program Test, but the fact that Christie actually won suggests he can sell just about everything, including his argument over compassion.

That's an enormously helpful skill for Republicans, who start from a natural disadvantage in the Needle Exchange Program Test.

If Christie can win against the teacher's union in New Jersey, he can genuinely sell conservative compassion. That's a huge skill.

Bruce Springsteen Test: 10/10

If you were trying to curry favor with Christie or trying to win a tweet from him, this is the way to do it -- give him a 10/10 on a scale named after his idol.

But the reason, perhaps, that Christie's adoration for Springsteen is so irrepressible is that Christie probably views himself as the political equivalent of Springsteen. Thus, when Christie hugged it out with Springsteen, that was like hugging himself, and we're all prone to love ourselves (Van Gogh being a notable exception).

On the facts of the matter, Christie's origins aren't quite as humble as Springsteen's. His dad was a respectable accountant, and Christie himself graduated from The University of Delaware and picked up a law degree at Seton Hall before pursuing a career in law that eventually led to becoming U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

Springsteen, meanwhile, barely graduated from high school, skipped his graduation ceremony, and quickly dropped out of a community college.

But both Christie and Springsteen share a "man of the people" aura that's enormously helpful in politics.


2. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez

The Park Ranger Who Gets Two Visitors a Day at a Historic Site Test: 7/10

She's a type-A personality (her grandmother called her the Spanish word for "little lawyer"), tends to take control of every situation, and wants to make sure things are done right.

Plugging her into the analogy, she'd make sure you got exactly the right pamphlet, understood which trail was for easier or harder walking, and finally, she'd tell you where both the men and women's restrooms were even if you only asked for one.

Having said that, she's not a terribly warm person, and as a type-A personality, seems to have a tendency towards occasional brusqueness, which can be mildly off-putting.

Nevertheless, she'd acquit herself well in the role of park ranger at a historic site.

The Gimpy Dog Test: 4/10

It's hard to feel much sorry or sympathy for Type A leaders who have everything under control and are supremely competent.

You've probably had friends like that, and you admire them, but sometimes, you're perversely happy when their alarm clock doesn't go off and they miss the meeting.

To wit: If you were hanging out with Pope Francis, at some point, you'd probably want him to tell a homeless guy to get a job or cut a pedestrian off in a Benz. Perfection makes us feel so imperfect, and we tend not to sympathize with perfect people because they're not like us.

And that's what The Gimpy Dog test is all about, and that's why Martinez scores fairly low. She seems almost procedurally perfect.

The Nordstrom Customer Service Test: 8/10

By all accounts, Martinez is unusually responsive to her constituents. She shows up just about everywhere and for everything, and acquits herself well while doing it -- whether it's adroitly handling protesters giving her office coal for Christmas, rejecting Veep speculation for all the right reasons, or dropping by to support voters who are waiting in line to vote for three hours (important note: she wasn't on the ballot and brought them pizza and water).

Again, the Nordstrom Customer Service Test isn't so much about friendliness as it is doing friendly things. It's not about personal warmth but personal assistance, and Martinez shines at that (In fact, Heart Magazine named her "Woman of the Year" in 2008 for her efforts on behalf of children as DA).

The Needle Exchange Program Test: 10/10

As I noted in the intro, this is a controversial category, because compassionate policies lie in the eye of the beholder, and I'm not saying that expanding government services is always the most compassionate thing to do.

But doing so in a fiscally responsible way tends to poll well, and when it comes to measuring empathy, doing things like expanding Medicaid can only help you, and that's exactly what Martinez has done.

Since the November election, she's both expanded Medicaid and set up ObamaCare's state-mandated health exchange, though, of course, she says she doesn't actually like ObamaCare.

And that's on top of her first Medicaid expansion which she oversaw during her first year as governor. Note the implicit shot she takes at Paul Ryan and Co. in this 2012 interview with The Daily Beast (emphasis added).

Despite inheriting a $450 million deficit, Martinez managed to wring an additional $6 million in Medicaid money out of the New Mexico legislature during her first year as governor. Her latest budget upped the ante to $45 million. “Lettie is on Medicaid,” Martinez explains. “So I believe in providing services to adults and children who can’t take care of themselves.”

The vast majority of national Republicans, including Romney, support Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity, which would decimate federal spending on the poor and sick. Martinez thinks they should reconsider. “Sometimes Republicans engage in number-crunching analysis that doesn’t always take the neediest into account,” she tells me. “We have to factor them in before we start proposing these cuts.”

So not only does Martinez err on the moderate side of things like Medicaid, she also talks a more emotional game and benefits from the fact that it's generally harder to charge a woman with cruel dispositions than a man, and, thus, her gender helps provide some measure of immunity to demagoguery (sorry, but it's true).

And who can forget the fact that she opposed Arizona's immigration law and mocked Romney's "self-deportation" Eureka moment?

For all that, Martinez scores a 10/10 on the Needle Exchange Program Test.

The Bruce Springsteen Test: 9/10

Martinez was born in a working class neighborhood in El Paso, Texas home, and for a brief time, lived with her family in public housing where the kids would, literally, kick the can down the street for amusement.

Meanwhile, her family eventually started started a security company that was perhaps as charming as a security company can be.

As a teenager, Martinez patrolled parking lots on Catholic bingo night, and during the day, she was doing things like becoming class president of her high school.

Of course, going to college and then law school opened doors for Martinez, but her childhood gave her the gritty sensibilities that enable her to connect with working class and Hispanic communities.

Thus, through both her personal story and mien, Martinez scores highly on the Springsteen test, and could move easily into and out of disparate socio-economic communities.


3. Florida Senator Marco Rubio

The Park Ranger who gets two visits per day at a Historic site Test: 8/10

Rubio is a funny, friendly guy, but not without a mischievous side (one of his high school teachers actually promised to give Rubio a better grade if he skipped class).

As a park ranger, he'd flash that broad smile and point you to the restroom with as much accuracy and friendliness as you'd hope.

Even better? He could do direct you to el bano in Espanol, as well.

Bilingualism boosts your empathy score  because it expands your audience and makes voters think you get them. Thus, Susana Martinez and Marco Rubio's language and heritage enables them to connect with more people.

The practical consequence is that the National Park System would hire Marco Rubio before it would hire me, and ironically enough, that basic dynamic extends all the way to the White House.

The Gimpy Dog Test: 6/10

His family story couldn't be more American, more admirable, or more inspirational. It's like something David McCullough would narrate, and that's an interesting test in its own right -- is your biography something you can imagine David McCullough narrating? Mine isn't. Yours probably isn't. But Rubio's definitely is.

So, it would logically seem that Rubio would do pretty well on the Gimpy Dog Test. Remember, it's about getting your audience to empathize with you and your travails, and not vice-versa.

So why isn't Rubio 10/10 here? Two reasons.

First, he's not the one who made the decision to come to America. He was born in Miami, which takes the harrowing factor down a notch from his dad's Cuban origins.

Second, you don't naturally empathize with him, because he doesn't have any obvious flaws. He's eloquent, smart, handsome, and uses contractions correctly. We like our leaders to have a few flaws to prove they're human, and Rubio's only apparent miss is that he's short, but he's not short enough to feel sorry for.

Thus, even though Rubio's family story is something to sympathize with, he's not, so we can only award him a 6/10 on The Gimpy Dog Test.

The Nordstrom Customer Service Test: 6/10

Rubio has maintained a good dialogue with the public even before he became a senator. In fact, he relied heavily on Twitter to get his message out and mix it up while he was getting thrashed by Charlie Crist in the early days of their 2010 Senate campaign.

He's also been responsive to media (although that's a political calculation, as well), and even teaches a political science class at FIU when he can.

Having said that, there aren't any urban legends about Rubio swooping in to metaphorically rescue one of his constituents, so we can't peg him too terribly high on the Nordstrom Customer Service Test.

Cory Booker sets the standard there.

The Needle Exchange Program Test: 7/10

Again, this is the most controversial metric, but Rubio's done a number of things that would strike those in the middle as compassionate and caring.

His eloquent push for immigration reform, which he repeatedly calls a humanitarian issue, is the most obvious example of framing a controversial issue in a way that's compassionate and realistic.

Much like Chris Christie, he's also an unusually good spokesman for conservative ideals -- not in a wonky, creative way like Bobby Jindal -- but in broad swoops that wrap the Right's philosophy in compassionate and inspirational terms.

So -- good on him there.

But he's also done a few things that could severely bite him on the empathy thing. His vote against the Violence Against Women Act is the most inscrutable decision he's made in the past year. Granted, his objections made some sense, but dude, if you're planning a national political career in a "war on women" environment, why would you ever oppose something like VAWA? A better description might be "Violence Against My Presidential Ambitions Act."

The election might still be three years away, and politics is all about short memories, but it's also about opposition research that hunts and raids every part of your past.

In short, his vote against the VAWA will come up in a big way in a general election.

The Bruce Springsteen Test: 4/10

Rubio might come from humble beginnings, but he doesn't have a ton of regular guy appeal. You can imagine both Chris Christie and Susana Martinez in an Ohio factory, hard-hatted and safety-goggled up. Rubio is much less aesthetically credible in that environment.

Further, Rubio's immigration plan makes him somewhat vulnerable in union territory and with the working class whites that Republicans absolutely need in the Midwest.

Rubio might not be Romney, but some of his competitors have far better Bruce Springsteen cred -- Scott Walker, Susana Martinez, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, and even Paul Ryan, who looked fairly ridiculous in safety goggles, but nevertheless, has loads of gun cred.


4. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul

The Park Ranger Who Gets Two Visitors a Day at a Historic Site Test: 7/10

Okay, so let's do this. You walk into a visitor center -- how friendly and helpful is Rand Paul?

Well, back up there. Is the visitor center even open if Rand Paul has his druthers? Wouldn't it be mothballed, along with the rest of the government?

So if Rand Paul were a park ranger, he might actually fire himself.

But getting back to the metaphorics of the test, Paul comes across as a friendly guy who might be southern but could conceivably be something else (Haley Barbour, for example, could only be southern. Andrew Cuomo could only be from New York etc.,).

So he's friendly enough and fine on that score.

The Gimpy Dog Test: 5/10

Rand's famous dad, Ron, is a doctor and a congressman, and Rand himself is an optometrist and a United States senator, who's been undeniably helped by his last name.

There's nothing gimpy dog about that. On the face of it, conjuring up sympathy for Rand Paul is difficult.

But his filibuster might have shifted things a bit. Stand with Rand wasn't just about supporting his cause, it was about sympathizing with his struggle to raise awareness for something he was passionate about.

In our bathroom mirrors, we all like to pretend we're U.S. senators filibustering to put America back into America, and I think his efforts there provoked considerable sympathy.

So for that, and that reason alone, he manages to crack a 5/10 on The Gimpy Dog Test.

The Nordstrom Customer Service Test: Incomplete

It's too reckless to grade something that's still fuzzy, so let's not assign him a grade on this one.

But we do know that The Kentucky Herald Leader, which endorsed Paul, ran an op-ed last week, titled "Basking in media glow, Rand Paul should remember KY."

Meanwhile, we hope it's not too much to ask that he devote some fraction of the time and energy to representing the people of Kentucky that he does to his seemingly limitless political ambitions.

Ouch. Nevertheless, there's not enough material to assign him a grade.

The Needle Exchange Program Test: 2/10

Libertarianism might be chic right now, but note that it's primarily moral libertarianism; not economic libertarianism.

Americans are growing fonder and fonder of government services, and those are often considered compassionate, and Rand Paul wants to pare back those services and not just in the way Republicans often do, but in a dramatic let's actually do this kind of way.

To wit: his budget proposal calls for eliminating the Departments of Commerce, Education, and the TSA. Even more controversially, it calls for a flat tax (which would be relentlessly painted as regressive) and the elimination of taxes on capital gains, dividends, and savings.

In this We Want the Rich to May More moment in society, all of those tax reforms would be enormously controversial, and Paul would be relentlessly pegged as out-of-touch with normal folks.

The Bruce Springsteen Test: 7/10

There's some overlap between The Gimpy Dog Test and Bruce Springsteen Test, but remember -- The Gimpy Dog Test is about feeling sorry for someone (Christie's weight), whereas, The Bruce Springsteen Test measures a candidate's connection with ordinary Americans.

Paul does better on the Springsteen Test than the Gimpy Dog test, because even though you don't feel sympathize for him, he seems fairly down-to-earth and knowable. Paul could connect with rust belt whites in a way that neither Marco Rubio nor Jeb Bush could, and that's a huge plus.


Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

The Park Ranger Who Gets Two Visitors a Day Test: 7/10

If I had to pick any of these candidates to direct me to the restroom at a visitor center, I'd pick Jeb. Not because he's the friendliest (he's not), but because he'd be helpful and precise without seeming desperate to chat or officious.

That being said, everyone has their own preferences, and while Jeb is warm in a quiet way, he doesn't seem overwhelmingly empathetic and probably wouldn't pay too much attention if you started walking down a trail with your grandmother that loops for ten miles.

The Gimpy Dog Test: 2/10

There's only one reason to feel sympathetic for Jeb Bush -- he's the brother who didn't get to be president.

But beyond that, is there anything about Jeb's personal, professional, or political life, anything about his manner, his mammon, or his M.O. that's relatable or provokes any measure of sympathy?

He's a blessed Bush, after all!

The only competing dynasty right now is the Clintons, and Hillary provoked sympathy as First Lady, and even Bill Clinton's glum doghouse look made you feel kind of bad for him in the '90's.

Again, the only reason to feel mildly awww about Bush is that he was the brother who didn't become president (This video from last year shows that it's at least a little bit awwy).

But other than that, he bakes up a giant donut on The Gimpy Dog Test.

The Nordstrom Customer Service Test: 3/10

As governor, Jeb was accessible to his constituents and seems to have paid an admirable amount of attention to them.

But since then, Jeb hasn't seemed particularly eager to help the GOP. Sure, he offers advice, but it's usually encrusted with criticism, and except for his championing of Marco Rubio, he's largely stayed out of political horse races.

In fact, even when he finally endorsed Mitt Romney, the most memorable moment of his 2012 legacy was privately calling out Mitt on immigration and, more broadly, hammering Republicans for being too extreme (not too helpful when that fit the narrative Democrats were building).

Then there's this.

It's often said that Jeb will only run for president his way and on his terms. That doesn't sound like a particularly good customer service department -- that doesn't sound like Nordstrom. Instead, that sounds exactly what you'd expect from a company who doesn't feel it owes its shareholders or customers anything.

The Needle Exchange Program Test: 10/10

When it comes to the controversial compassion of needle exchange programs, Jeb shines.

He has a way of talking policy that doesn't sound political, he's keenly aware of outreach, and most importantly, he has good instincts. To wit: in his new book, he talks about two steps for reaching Hispanics. Everyone agrees on the first: immigration reform.

But instead of pivoting to something about small businesses and lower taxes, he correctly pegs education as the next, logical step in wooing Hispanics. For Jeb, equal opportunity begins in kindergarten, and he's been a passionate advocate for school reform and vouchers.

It's a smart message. Hispanics are particularly concerned about education, and theoretically, would be responsive to the basic idea that poorer kids should get the same education as richer kids.

Thus, Jeb seems unusually adept at presenting a controversial agenda in compassionate terms.

The Bruce Springsteen Test: 1/10

Again, he's a Bush.

His dad wasn't a bus driver, he was a president. Jeb didn't barely graduate from high school, he went to Phillips Academy -- an elite prep school in Massachusetts.

Jeb didn't drop out of a community college, he went to the University of Texas, has worked in international finance, has numerous business interests, has been a two-term governor of Florida, and is likely wealthier than either his famous big brother, George W., and his dad.

None of that's bad. But none of it suggests that voters can empathize with him or that he can empathize with them.

George W. Bush's saving grace was that he had an accent and some lovable, ordinary flaws that resonated with normal Americans. Jeb has neither the accent nor the apparent, lovable human flaws.


So, 4600 words later, there you have it.

Okay,  now that we've done the Republicans, we'll take a look at the top five Democrats next week.