A Little Empathy, Please?

The new Suffolk/Ch.7 poll just out shows the Massachusetts governor's race pretty much where it was in May: Deval Patrick leads with 42%, Charlie Baker is behind at 34%, Tim Cahill is well behind but not irrelevant with 14%, and Jill Stein lags at 4%.

Truthfully, as far as I can tell, not much has changed in this race since summer of 2009, with the lone exception of the big RGA ad blitz in the spring that flipped Baker and Cahill's positions in the polls. Voters still would generally prefer a new governor, but have yet to develop any positive feelings for any of the challengers.

I have recently developed a new working theory about this race, and I thought I'd roll it out today in advance of tonight's televised debate. My theory is that voters are being lulled into apathy by the total absence of human empathy among the candidates.

When these candidates talk about the state's economic woes -- when they can be prodded to talk about it at all -- it's like they're in some posh Beacon Hill parlor, or the sitting room at the Harvard Club, discussing something they've read about in the Economist. "Say, what do you make of this underemployment business, eh?" "Well, Charles, I think it points to the need to free up capital investment in growth industries, wouldn't you say?" "Tut, tut, don't you see that uncertainty in the business climate will remain until the state's structural deficit is resolved?"

Every ad shows the candidates talking to, not listening to voters. I never hear any of the candidates tell affecting stories about people they've met around the state. Other than platitudes like "people are hurting, I understand that," they don't really say anything to indicate that they actually do understand, and care about, what people in the Commonwealth are dealing with.

Voters in tough times want empathy. Let's be honest: other than strong partisans, most people don't think they know which, if any, jobs proposals are more likely to help them -- and they don't much believe that the candidates know, either. The best they can do is pick someone who they think has some understanding of what they're going through, and seems to care enough to try to do something about it.

In the last two Presidential elections held during recessions, the winners held clear 'empathy gaps' over their opponents. In 1992, Bill Clinton travelled the country feeling everyone's pain, while George H.W. Bush was denying that the country was even in a recession. In 2008 -- from well before the September financial collapse -- Barack Obama was talking about the economic problems regular people were having, and accusing John McCain and the Republicans of being woefully out of touch with those problems. (I commented at the end of the Republican convention that I was stunned McCain made no effort to counter that accusation, but of course as we would soon learn McCain was, in fact, woefully out of touch with the country's economic problems.)

Patrick probably makes the most effort (although rare and unconvincing) to show the kind of empathy I'm talking about, but it probably matters least with him -- people's views of him are pretty well established one way or the other. Stein is surprisingly devoid of it as a candidate, offering very clinical analyses. (Compare with Grace Ross, for example.) Cahill I think has the best opportunity to connect in a believable way -- when he's not all stiff and corporate-looking, you really can see him as just a guy from Quincy.

And then there's Charlie. I've gone back through some of the campaign stuff -- poking around his web site, looking at his ads and web videos, re-reading his convention speech, looking through my debate notes -- and I'm hard pressed to find any instance of Baker making any attempt to express human empathy toward an average person. He does occasionally seem to empathize with certain companies, but that's not exactly the same thing.

Obviously there's still plenty of time -- and lots of ad dollars -- left for the candidates to work on connecting to voters. Tonight's debate might be a good time to start.

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