Call him the un-Mitt. In announcing his presidential candidacy on Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida highlighted his “everyman” credentials: the son of Cuban immigrants – his father was a bartender and his mother a maid – who was able to achieve an American dream that he wants to make sure is operative for future generations.
On Monday, there were no Mitt Romney insensitivities about a wife’s “couple of Cadillacs” or about immigrants deporting themselves. As Senator Rubio commented after Mr. Romney’s defeat in 2012, “It’s hard to make an economic argument to people who think you want to deport their grandmother.”
What Rubio was getting at back then was the Republican nominee’s apparent lack of empathy for voters. Pollsters measure that with questions such as: Does the candidate “understand” or “care about” people like you?
In 2012, Romney failed the empathy test big time, losing the “care about” question 81 to 18 percent against President Obama in national exit polling – even though he led in every other category that voters said mattered most in making their decision (leadership, vision, and values).
The empathy question is “very, very important, and probably in the end is the ultimate criteria,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
The question “is particularly important right now because voters think politicians are out of touch with their lives. They think this economy is not working for average people,” says Ms. Lake, known for the Battleground poll she does with GOP pollster Ed Goeas.
It’s not that Americans won’t elect wealthy presidents – think FDR, JFK, and the Bushes. “One does not need to come from humble roots to be president,” says Margie Omero, a Democratic strategist with the bipartisan polling firm Purple Strategies. But, she says, a candidate needs to strike the right tone, use empathetic language, and offer policies that show relatability to voters.
“Clearly one of Marco Rubio’s strengths is his ability to put himself in the shoes of voters or at least use the language that’s familiar to voters,” Ms. Omero says. “He has a skill at using that everyman, everyperson tone. Ultimately, people want to see policies as well.”
On Monday evening, Rubio poured on the empathy and optimism, even as he warned about a “diminished” America and endangered opportunity for all. He touched only briefly on policy points – citing a need for tax and immigration reform, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and a robust foreign policy that does not cave on Iran or ignore human rights abuses in places like Cuba.
The youngest candidate to enter the race jabbed his older opponents, saying the country needs leadership that breaks free from ideas "stuck in the 20th century," an indirect dig at Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush.
But Rubio’s main focus before supporters at Miami’s Freedom Tower, which is a former US point of entry for Cuban refugees, was his family’s story of opportunity in America, and its universal message.
After telling of his dad’s long nights behind a bar, and of his father’s words to him – quoted in Spanish – that the son could achieve all the things the parents never could, Rubio went on to speak of the dreams of other Americans – of single moms, students, landscape workers, and, yes, bartenders.
“If their American dreams become impossible, we will have just become another country. But if they succeed, this 21st century will also be an American century,” he said, describing that as the message of his campaign.
Democrats typically have an advantage on the empathy question, say strategists from both parties. But demographic changes in the electorate make it a necessity that Republicans improve that performance.
The GOP white voter base is shrinking – a point driven home during presidential election years, when more minorities come out to vote. Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. The 2016 GOP nominee will have to perform in the mid-40s with Latinos, says GOP pollster – and Rubio adviser – Whit Ayres.
“It’s important for [Republicans] to do better on ‘cares about people like me,’ because you’re going to have an electorate that’s going to be around 31 percent nonwhite,” said Mr. Ayres at a Monitor breakfast last month.
Of course, the electorate is big and diverse, and “people like me” can be, well, everyone: women, Evangelicals, African-Americans, young people, seniors, business owners, the middle class.
“It’s certainly a lot to ask of any one candidate to be able to understand everybody,” strategist Omero says. “People don’t expect presidential candidates to agree with them on every single issue, but that that person has an open mind and that they love the voter – they want to hear about the voter’s problems.”
At this early stage in the campaign, candidates – and those preparing to jump in – have room to grow in their messaging and identification with voters, Omero says, noting that none of the candidates are really popular right now.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, in reaching out to conservative Evangelicals, likes to share his faith and tell the story of how his boyhood family was preserved by his father’s turning to Jesus Christ. His father – who fled Cuba when he was 18 years old – eventually became a Baptist preacher.
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, who has a strong libertarian streak, is reaching out to Millennials and minorities through casualness in his dress and manner, some unorthodox policy positions, and a message that bashes both Democrats and Republicans.
Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has not yet formally announced his candidacy, talks of his concerns as a parent and as someone who grew up in a “kind of poor” household, supported by his preacher father and a mother who was a part-time secretary. He flipped burgers to help pay for college – which he never finished.
“They’re positioning themselves against Jeb Bush,” pollster Lake says.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton, too, needs to connect with voters in an empathetic way – not so much on policy, but in her manner and personal story.
Her comment last year that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House was a turnoff to many. In the video announcing her campaign Sunday, she vowed to serve as a "champion" of "everyday Americans."
“I think people feel that she is fighting for them – that she has the policies in place and experience and dedication of service to fight for the middle class,” says Omero. “But she, like the Republican field, is going to need to continue to connect to individual voters.”