New Poll: With Carson Fading, Can Any GOP Candidates Close the “Empathy Gap”?

Dr. Ben Carson (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Dr. Ben Carson (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

According to 2012 exit polling on the presidential race, one of the most lopsided measures between GOP nominee Mitt Romney and Democratic incumbent Barack Obama was perceived empathy, or voters’ opinions about whether each candidate “cares about people like me.” For voters for whom this measure was the most important, Obama trounced Romney, 81-18, proving the existence of an “empathy gap” between the two candidates about which many pundits had speculated prior to the election.

The good news for Republicans? A new Quinnipiac national poll shows Hillary Clinton struggling in the empathy department. When respondents were asked whether or not they believe Clinton “cares about the needs and problems of people like you,” only 46 percent said yes, while 51 percent said no. The ratio was even worse among independents: 40-56.

The bad news? Not all the GOP candidates fare much better.  The “empathy rating” for all the major candidates, both Republican and Democrats, is below:

  • Bernie Sanders: +18, 12% unsure
  • Ben Carson: +12, 13% unsure
  • Marco Rubio: +7, 23% unsure
  • Ted Cruz: -1, 15% unsure
  • Hillary Clinton: -5, 3% unsure
  • Donald Trump: -23, 4% unsure

I wrote last month on how Ben Carson, based on polling at that time, appeared to be the GOP candidate with the best crossover appeal.  That no longer seems to be the case, though he still scores the highest empathy rating among Republicans. Nevertheless, Carson’s image has clearly taken a hit as his negative publicity has piled up.

This is more evident when one looks at the net favorability ratings among all voters in the Quinnipiac poll:

  • Bernie Sanders: +13, 24% unsure
  • Marco Rubio: +9, 34% unsure
  • Ben Carson: +7, 25% unsure
  • Ted Cruz: 0, 32% unsure
  • Carly Fiorina: -1, 42% unsure
  • John Kasich: -4, 57% unsure
  • Hillary Clinton: -7, 3% unsure
  • Mike Huckabee: -12, 30% unsure
  • Rand Paul: -17, 36% unsure
  • Chris Christie: -20, 24% unsure
  • Jeb Bush: -22, 12% unsure
  • Donald Trump: -22, 5% unsure

While Carson’s favorability is still comparatively high, he has been surpassed here by Marco Rubio as the GOP candidate most favorable to the general electorate. Rubio is also very close in the empathy rating as well.

Now that Rubio has moved up to second place overall in the Republican nomination race, it is possible that increased scrutiny could hurt his image as well.  However, as a more polished candidate than Carson, it is also possible that Rubio has staying power which Carson lacks. More data, of course, will be needed to make a truly strong case that Rubio is the GOP’s best general election candidate. However, based on this polling, it is certainly possible that Rubio is well positioned to take advantage of Clinton’s weaknesses and avoid the same “empathy” pitfalls Romney suffered in 2012.

A Donald Trump nomination, on the other hand, could be devastating for the GOP’s 2016 election chances. While Quinnipiac found 73 percent of Republicans believe Trump would defeat the Democratic nominee – the highest number of any major GOP candidates – it seems unlikely that Trump would be as successful in translating his support into independent and Democratic votes as other possible nominees.

With less than two months to go until the Iowa Caucus, this will be a storyline to watch closely.

Paul Dupont is the managing editor for ThePulse2016.com.