Do kind candidates win elections?

Sparsha Saha | Jan 14, 2020

 

I want to get out there and show people that you can be a Republican and be considerate and kind and diverse…We need to have new role models in the party.”

Most scholars agree that perceived empathy matters to voters when selecting a political candidate. They also seem to agree that it matters more to Democratic voters than Republican voters, on average. This is something my own research finds as well. In 2019, I ran an experimental survey on a large representative sample of US voters to investigate how and when kind candidates win elections. I presented resumes or profiles of hypothetical candidates running for a gubernatorial primary, randomizing things like age, gender, and perceived empathy, and asked respondents to select who they would prefer to represent them in a general election.

I found that people do make decisions based on how kind they perceive candidates to be. But, kindness as a trait or characteristic is considered feminine, and some studies find that activating such stereotypes can be really bad for women hoping to win elections. So, to answer the question of whether kind candidates win elections, we have to also think about candidate gender and party affiliation because they matter.

My working paper finds that, though Democrats and Republicans both like empathetic candidates, the size and direction of the effect really depend on the candidate’s gender. For Democratic voters in my sample, there didn’t seem to be too much of a difference in how voters considered kind male candidates versus kind female candidates. For Republicans, on the other hand, there was a very clear gender difference. These voters significantly penalize very empathetic Republican female candidates. Breaking this down even further, Republican voters penalize a particular kind of empathy in their female candidates; while there isn’t a significant difference between Republican male and female candidates who show empathetic concern—or feelings of sympathy—there is a big one when it comes to showing high levels of cognitive empathy, otherwise known as perspective-taking or the ability to perceive and understand the emotions of another. To make matters even more complicated for female candidates on the right, my work also finds that low levels of perceived affective empathy don’t hurt Republican male candidates, but they do hurt Republican female candidates.

So, what does this all mean for 2020? Some called 2018 the Year of the Woman; but, at least in politics, it was very blue. Out of the 127 women on Capitol Hill, only 21 are Republicans. This may change in 2020. More Republican women than ever are planning to run for office. Many, like Valerie Ramirez Mukherjee are aiming high, counting on winning the votes of those in swing districts who are dissatisfied with the current state of the Republican party. However, while their Democratic counterparts in 2018 had much success, the path for Republican female candidates this year might be trickier to navigate. Leaning into being “considerate and kind” will involve a balancing act; what type of kindness is being perceived matters for women on the right, but not on the left. Finding the sweet spot—high levels of empathetic concern, but not too much cognitive empathy—is going to be important for them, but it’s going to be hard as well.

 

For a copy of the working paper discussed in this piece, please email saha@fas.harvard.edu.

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