Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, two former speechwriters for President George W. Bush, are out with a new article for Commentary on saving the Republican Party. In the course of making the generally sound point that Republicans need to do a better job appealing to middle-income Americans, the authors misleadingly cite exit poll data from the 2012 election.

The reason I raise this issue is that the statistic they distort is one that’s come up repeatedly in post-election articles as well as informal discussions I’ve attended on the GOP’s future, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the most widely misunderstood question in the 2012 exit polls.

Here’s Gerson and Wehner:

“Sure enough, in November exit polls, 81 percent of voters said that Barack Obama ‘cared for people like me’; a mere 18 percent said the same of Romney.”

This is simply wrong. In reality, the relevant question asked voters what they considered the “most important candidate quality.” About three-quarters of voters (combined) responded that the most important qualities to them were shared values, strong leadership or a candidate’s vision for the future.  But 21 percent said the most important quality in a candidate was that he “cares about people.” And it’s among that subset of voters that Obama dominated. In other words, the “81 percent of voters” that Gerson and Wehner cite actually represent 81 percent of those 21 percent (or roughly 17 percent of voters polled).

The problem with making too much of this statistic is that there’s a tremendous self-selection bias involved. Voters who identify “caring about people” as the most important quality for a president to have – more important than vision or leadership – are far more likely to be liberal. This is further corroborated by the 2004 exit polls, which showed John Kerry trouncing Bush among “cares about people” voters, by a 75 percent to 25 percent margin.* This was the case even though Gerson and Wehner’s former boss pushed through policies such as “No Child Left Behind” and the Medicare prescription drug plan in his first term. A large part of the political rationale for these policies was simply to show that Republicans cared about people – hence the term “compassionate conservatism.”

The point of all of this is not to deny that Republican candidates need to be more appealing to middle-income voters. But the danger of misinterpreting this one statistic and then placing too much importance on it is that it could help trigger a renaissance in big government Republicanism, in which the GOP gets into a bidding war with Democrats over who “cares” more.


*Side note: It’s true that in 2004, only 9 percent of voters considered caring about people to be the most important candidate quality, as opposed to 21 percent in 2012. Part of this may have to do with the Obama campaign’s ability to get their voters to the polls and make the election about Romney being out of touch (and Romney seemingly doing everything in his power to reaffirm the caricature that had been created for him).

But it’s also significant that in 2004, exit pollsters gave voters a choice of seven candidate qualities, whereas in 2012, there were only four choices. So, for instance, in 2004, 24 percent of voters said the most important quality in a candidate was bringing change, and those went for Kerry by a 19 to one margin. If that hadn’t been an option, it’s likely that many of those voters would have chosen “cares about people” as their top choice.