2016’s Biggest Surprise — The Closing of the Empathy Gap

The 2016 election was full of surprises. But no surprise was more unexpected — and more significant — than the sudden collapse of the Left’s compassion advantage.

In the two presidential elections before 2016, Democrats enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in the “caring” column. In 2008, voters who said they wanted a president who “cares about people like them” favored Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of 74 to 24. The empathy gap widened in 2012 when Obama trounced Mitt Romney by a margin of 81 to 18 among those voters.

Heading into election night, many conservatives assumed Hillary Clinton would win not just because of the polls but because experience had taught us the power of the empathy gap. Democrats tended to win battles — even when evidence and results were not on their side — because voters gave them the benefit of the doubt and assumed they cared more than Republicans. This persistent pessimism on the right reinforced the conventional wisdom that assumed a Clinton victory.

Yet, in 2016, Trump unexpectedly narrowed this gap significantly. Clinton still won among these voters 58 to 35 percent, but Trump was found to be twice as “caring” as Romney.

Trump deserves credit for closing this gap with a message that appealed to disaffected rural and Rust Belt voters. Still, the startling outcome wasn’t a Trump revolution as much as a Clinton collapse. According to the final vote tally, Clinton received 3.7 million fewer votes than Obama received in 2008. Trump, on the other hand, received almost 3 million more votes than McCain. Trump’s increase isn’t stunning given population growth. (There were 21 million more Americans of voting age in 2016 than in 2008). But the change in population makes Clinton’s collapse all the more staggering.

As Republicans look to 2017, the numbers suggest they shouldn’t assume a mandate. Instead, they should seize an historic opportunity to earn a mandate and the trust and confidence of voters who took a chance on Trump. That’s precisely what Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), intend to do.

Republicans should seize an historic opportunity to earn a mandate and the trust and confidence of voters who took a chance on Trump

Trump’s closing of the empathy gap comes at a fortuitous time for the Right. Just as Republicans have a chance to chart a new course, conservatives are prepared with a thoughtful agenda that has been refined over many years.

Last week, Opportunity Lives co-hosted a summit on upward mobility called “This Way Up” that began with a speech from Ryan and a discussion between the House Speaker and the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib.

Ryan spoke about the “ferment” on the center-right around issues of upward mobility. He joked it’s a dialogue that no longer includes just “six people around [his mentor’s] Jack Kemp’s table.”

“We are coming to a consensus on how to fight poverty and restore upward mobility in America,” Ryan said. He promised a “multi-front policy war” and a “battle of ideas” in 2017 that will he believes will remedy domestic policies that have kept so many American’s from reaching their full potential.

Ryan’s key insight isn’t a top-down Washington solution from the Republican side of the aisle. Instead, he spoke about the need to empower local leaders on the front lines. Ryan described the process of learning from his other mentor, Bob Woodson, who showed Ryan examples of effective poverty fighters across the country (as captured in our “Comeback” series). Ryan’s experience with Woodson has inspired other House members to do the same thing in their districts and discover and listen to the people on the ground who are making a difference.

“So that’s what today is all about,” Ryan said. “It’s about learning. Because when you actually go into these communities, there are people doing tremendous work fighting poverty eye to eye, soul to soul, person to person, who we need to learn from. And they need our support.”

On election night Republicans who thought they were destined to spend another four years or more in the wilderness suddenly found themselves in the throne room. Thanks to the willingness of voters to take a chance on the notion that Republicans just might care, conservatives have a chance to deliver the results millions desperately want.

John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.