Empathy and Electoral Accountability
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In this dissertation, I examine the important role empathy has on voting behavior and election outcomes. First, I provide a rationale for why Americans find empathy a desirable trait in a leader. I argue that voters desire an empathetic leader, not because empathy is an inherently desirable trait as the literature so often assumes, but because this form of caring indicates that a politician is uniquely motivated and qualified to help others. And whereas prior scholarship emphasizes partisanship and global evaluations of politicians on support, I show how perceptions of empathy can serve as a heuristic for voters. This heuristic is especially important when voters do not have a partisan affiliation to influence their vote, such as in the case of pure independent voters and partisan voters in primaries. Second, I present a theory to explain why some politicians are perceived as more empathetic than others. Perceptions of empathy, I argue, are shaped largely by the presence of commonalities that link voters with a politician. In discussing the importance of commonalities, I differentiate between sympathy and empathy. I argue that empathy in a politician, or their ability to walk in another’s shoes, is more powerful than sympathy as a motivator of support. When a politician simply claims to “care” for the average American, voters may be skeptical. By demonstrating a common link with the voter, the politician overcomes what I call the “sincerity barrier,” or the tendency of individuals to approach the promises of politicians with skepticism. The key theoretical contribution in this dissertation is a classification scheme for the types of commonalities perceived by voters that lead to stronger perceptions of empathy: 1) a shared experience; 2) a shared emotion; or 3) a shared identity. To support this theory, I rely on a mixed-method approach, using in-depth interviews with political professionals, nationally representative surveys, and behavioral experiments.