A frank admission: Political reporters, including yours truly, absolutely cherish exit polls of voters. Why? Because the people who are interviewed in an exit poll on Election Day have just voted and, because the voting is still going on, they obviously have no idea whether their preferred candidate has won or lost.
Plus, the sheer number of voters interviewed in a presidential election day exit poll — 26,565 by actual count in 2012 — provides a sample size so large you can, if you’re so obsessed, find how virtually every subgroup of voters — from formerly married Hispanic agnostics on Medicare to pro-environment, main-line Protestants who oppose legalizing the sale of small quantities of marijuana — voted.
Here is one gem from the last presidential election that really surprised me. Voters were asked, in making your presidential choice, “Which one of these four qualities mattered most in deciding how you voted?” The four qualities listed were: “shares my values,” named by 27 percent of voters as most important; “strong leader,” chosen by 18 percent; “vision for the future,” which mattered most to 29 percent of the electorate; and the quality “"cares about people like me,” which was most important to 21 percent.
Among the three out of four voters for whom “shares my values,” “strong leader” and “vision for the future” mattered most, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won solid majorities — ranging between 54 and 61 percent — in each of the three.
But here’s where President Barack Obama won and Romney lost: Among the just over one in five voters who answered “cares about people like me” as their most important quality in picking a president, Obama crushed Romney by 81 percent to 18 percent. Voters saw empathy in Obama but not in his challenger.
The danger for Republicans is that this compassion deficit and perceived hard-heartedness could extend to the entire party.
Over a 25-year period, from Ronald Reagan’s presidency to Obama’s, the Pew Research professionals have asked voters to agree or disagree that “it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves.” When Reagan was president, 79 percent of Americans — including 62 percent of Republicans — agreed we had a responsibility, through the government, to take care of those unable to care of themselves. By 2012, three out of five Americans and, not surprisingly, 75 percent of Democrats, still recognized a collective responsibility to care for the less fortunate. But only 42 percent of those belonging to the party of Abraham Lincoln — a steep 20 percent drop from 1987 — acknowledged the U.S. responsibility to the least of these.
This brings us to the current debate over whether Congress should vote to raise the nation’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from the current $7.25. While media attention has focused recently on the Congressional Budget Office analysis that predicted the proposed increase would lift 900,000 workers out of poverty and increase the pay of more than 16 million workers, but cost 500,000 low-paid workers their jobs, more than 70 percent of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — in the most recent national Pew poll endorse giving minimum-wage workers a raise to $10.10 an hour. But the Republican House majority is loudly and proudly on the other side, unmoved by public opinion, in opposition to raising the minimum wage.
You couldn’t blame voters if, given what the GOP fights against tooth and toenail, they conclude that Republicans have become the political version of the tin man, without a heart.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.