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President Obama, Mitt Romney and the empathy gap

at 06:30 AM ET, 01/31/2012

Presidential elections are more about hearts than heads. That is, most voters — particularly those loosely affiliated with the two parties — tend to vote based more on how they feel about a particular candidate than about the specific policy positions that the candidate espouses.

Voters want a candidate who they believe understands their problems, even if he or she doesn’t share them in their own lives.

That’s why new poll numbers from the Washington Post and Pew Research Center are so noteworthy.

Here’s a chart of how President Obama, Mitt Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich fare on what we like to call the “empathy question”:

Overall, 55 percent of registered voters said that Obama understands “the problems of average Americans” either “very well” (30 percent) or “fairly well” (24 percent). Forty-one percent said Obama doesn’t understand those problems well.

Those numbers compare very favorably for the president with the empathy scores for Romney, about whom 39 percent of voters said he understands the problems of average Americans and 48 percent said he doesn’t.

In several key demographic groups, the data tell a similar story. Among independents, 53 percent said Obama understands problems of average people well, while just 38 percent said the same of Romney. Among Midwesterners — a central battleground region in 2012 — 60 percent said that Obama understands the problems of the average person, while just 39 percent said that of Romney.

Call it the empathy gap. And expect it to be a major focal point for Obama if Romney can win today’s Florida primary and winds up as the Republican nominee.

Democrats believe that Romney is fatally flawed on that measure, due not only to to his considerable wealth, but also to the way in which he acquired it. They point out that average people don’t understand how Bain Capital — the company Romney founded and which made him rich — operated, and once they are educated about its business practices, will find them drastically out of step with their own values.

Republicans retort that Obama isn’t much of populist either, and that his economic policies put him badly out-of-step with what the average person expects — and wants — from his or her government.

While Obama clearly begins with an edge on the empathy question, it’s also worth noting that the Post-Pew poll was in the field as the Republican presidential race — and, in particular, questions about Romney’s tax returns — dominated the national headlines.

It’s possible, then, that in a few months the empathy gap may narrow. Of course, Obama and his campaign team will do everything in their power to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Gingrich predicts ‘decisive victory’: Casting aside the many polls showing him down double digits in the Florida primary, Gingrich on Monday predicted he would win a “decisive victory” on Tuesday.

“With your help, we are going to win a decisive victory tomorrow,” Gingrich said at a rally, according to the Wall Street Journal. “With your help, we’re going to go on to win across the whole country, and with your help, starting in (the GOP convention in) Tampa, we’re going to run a general election campaign.”

Not exactly keen expectation-setting.

While the most recent polls show anything from a five-point Romney edge to a 20-point Romney edge, the one thing none of them show is Gingrich winning handily. Indeed, if he did win decisively, it would certainly rank with the New Hampshire Democratic primary of 2008 in terms of pollsters getting it wrong.

As ABC reports, Gingrich appears to be dwelling on old polls.

As much as anything, though, the comments reflect Gingrich’s determination to stay in the race through the convention.

Super PAC targets six GOP House members: A new super PAC is targeting six House Republicans and will add four to its list at a later date.

The CREDO super PAC aims to raise $3 million, according to National Journal, and for now is eyeing half a dozen Republicans: Reps. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), Allen West (R-Fla.), Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), Steve King (R-Iowa) and Frank Guinta (R-N.H.).

So far, the group has $235,000 cash on hand. If it can raise $3 million, it would have a significant presence in these districts, where the Republicans appear vulnerable to varying degrees.

Three of the targets — Walsh, West and King — have drawn the ire of liberals nationwide with their outspoken conservative politics.

Fixbits:

Romney flubs the details of how Gingrich exited the House.

Romney’s support among independents drops.

But at least he can sing.

Romney quits attacking Gingrich on the eve of the Florida primary.

David Axelrod seems to have a Romney fixation on Twitter.

Like Romney, Gingrich has to amend his personal financial disclosure form after his tax return showed previously undisclosed income.

The author of “Eye of the Tiger” sues Gingrich for using the song.

Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson raised $650,000 in his first quarter of fundraising in the state’s GOP Senate primary. That’s $130,000 more than his nearest rival, former congressman Mark Neumann, but not exactly gangbusters from a former four-term governor. Thompson’s camp notes he entered the race with one month left in the quarter.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) outraised primary opponent and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock about two-to-one in the fourth quarter, pulling in $762,000 to Mourdock’s $386,000.

Businessman John Brunner self-funded $1 million and raised another $230,000 in the fourth quarter for the crowded Missouri GOP Senate primary.

Speaking of self-funders, former WWE CEO Linda McMahon (R) is actually raising money this time around for the Connecticut Senate race; she pulled in $326,000 in the fourth quarter. McMahon didn’t raise much for her 2010 bid in another open Senate race, instead spending $50 million of her own money.

A poll conducted for Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s Senate campaign shows him leading the GOP primary with 50 percent of the vote and no other candidate in double digits.

Former Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse CEO Craig Miller is dropping out of the state’s GOP Senate primary and will run in a congressional district that likely pits him against Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).

Must-reads:

Will Romney-Gingrich battle lead to costly split in the GOP?” — Dan Balz, Washington Post

Why Gingrich Is Right About Food-Stamp Program” — Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg

Good News and Bad News for Gingrich in Florida” — Ronald Brownstein, National Journal

 
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