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What Women Want From Their President

Why is Romey's standing among women voters so low?

When it comes to the issues, recent Republican focus on areas like abortion and contraception have undoubtedly repelled a swathe of women voters, but to understand the depth of the chasm we are going to have to look deeper than these evidently evolving policy positions alone. After all, the policy areas that are at the top of women’s lists—jobs and the economy—are at the top of men’s lists too. The difference in perception is more likely to be attributable to more profound characteristics of the campaigns and the candidates themselves. Psychological research suggests that a key difference between men and women is in the area of emotional intelligence. Women tend to have the edge over men here. This is, of course, an average and by no means universal finding. If we look deeper into the realm of emotional intelligence, however, we find that a particular facet of emotional intelligence is especially high in women compared to men, and it may well be that Obama is perceived to possess more of this characteristic than Romney does.

Emotional Intelligence, in broad terms, consists of four components; self-awareness, managing emotions, social skill and empathy. Empathy itself can be divided into cognitive empathy: when someone can intellectually understand what another person is going through; and emotional empathy: when someone can actually feel the emotions of the person they are connecting with. Women tend to score significantly higher in emotional empathy than men. Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, in his recent book The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain proposes that "The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."

This, to some degree, may be the basis of Obama’s greater appeal to women. Consider the ructions over the Supreme Court’s deliberations on the healthcare mandate over the last couple of weeks, when Obama warned the justices to be ever mindful of the impact their decision would have on individual lives and families. "There's not only an economic element to this and a legal element to this, but there's a human element to this. I hope that's not forgotten in this political debate." Such a perspective is a common theme in the way Obama governs. During crucial White House meetings Obama frequently carries in his pocket letters from Americans who have written to him about difficulties in their lives. He will sometimes take the letters out during tense legislative negotiations and ask how the proposal on the table will help the writers. There is a deep reservoir of empathy that people can sense, and it is an integral part of his brand. In a commentary piece on Obama’s healthcare plan, back in 2010, Eugene Robinson wrote, “To what extent does this churchgoing nation take the biblical instruction to ‘love thy neighbor’ seriously? These are the kinds of basic choices we face. Obama's [plan] appeals to the better angels of our nature.” And in his State of the Union speech last year, Obama underlined this basic vision, “The America I know is generous and compassionate.”

It is in this area in particular that Romney lags far behind, at least in the public perception. A series of unforced errors has created the impression of an empathy deficit. Saying “I like firing people,” a couple of months ago in the context of the statement he was making could have been overlooked, but when that was combined with subsequent statements like “I don’t care about the very poor,” a theme starts to generate. Retelling a “humorous” story during a campaign gathering about how his father once shut down a factory in Michigan didn’t help either. Nor was he helped by the rhetoric that has flown out of the Republican primary debates, with cheers for Texas’s high execution rate and cries of “let him die” when discussing the hypothetical fate of a catastrophically ill man.

Clearly Romney has a long way to go to bridge the vast gender gap he faces. If he’s serious about doing that, then showing some genuine empathy, and backing it up with a series of policies through which an empathic attitude is vividly demonstrated, is going to be fundamental to his campaign going forward. Despite the relative empathic toxicity of today’s Republican brand, this is still possible. There is a genuine strand within the party that sees its holy grail: promotion of the free market, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end; a better functioning, more just society with greater opportunity for all. This is the kind of perspective Romney needs to demonstrate a passion for if he is to conclude the campaign in a very different place than where it started.