Mark Sappenfield penned a column for Yahoo News this weekend with the provocative title, Why America might elect a president it doesn’t like. As you might guess, the premise for this assertion is based on favorability polls and the nuggets of data which analysts filter out of them. The two main subjects under discussion are, of course, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Neither scores very well nationally in terms of approval ratings, yet each is considered to be at least nominally the highest percentage bet to represent their party in the general election. So is there something wrong with us for propping up people we supposedly despise?
It is possible, perhaps even probable, that this fall’s election will be contested between two of three most disliked presidential candidates of at least the past quarter century.
And it is possible, perhaps even probable, that this is not a coincidence.
A Gallup survey released Saturday shows that Donald Trump has the highest unfavorability rating (60 percent) of any presidential candidate since the polling firm started tracking the figure in 1992. For her part, Hillary Clinton ranks third (52 percent) with the no-new-taxes-breaking George H.W. Bush of 1992 at No. 2.
In other words, the 2016 presidential election could be decided between two people that the majority of Americans, according to Gallup, don’t like politically.
As to the explanation for this seeming contradiction, the author points back to the well worn idea that we’re so ideologically divided as a nation these days that we would rather hate an opponent than love somebody on our own team. To be sure, some of the data which Sappenfield points to could be interpreted that way. Despite the fact that more and more people register as independents than members of the two major parties, they also largely qualify as “leaners” who are nearly as wedded to one party or the other as the elected officials are. Further, the general dissatisfaction Americans feel with their government can be interpreted as a sign of bitter partisanship and ideological zeal.
For supporting evidence he points to an article by Frank Luntz where he concludes that most of us would rather support a candidate who drives the opponents crazy than somebody we’re personally in love with. Even I’ll admit that there’s a grain of truth to that, at least when it comes to Donald Trump. The fact that he has the media setting their hair on fire every time he speaks certainly carries some appeal.
But at the same time, I have to remind myself that these sorts of conclusions probably aren’t rooted in the reality out on Main Street. We should remember that most of us who read such articles (as well as all of us who write them, in my case) are the people who are the most actively and constantly engaged in political warfare. Traveling in virtual circles of the politically oriented can trick us into thinking that we’re pretty much like everyone else in the country, but the truth is that we’re not. In fact, the gangs of Left and Right wing talkers on cable news, the bloggers and the hordes of people who comprise comment communities at political sites across the web might add up to a couple of hundred thousand people. Now, that’s a lot of folks if you’re talking about filling up football stadiums, but it’s a paltry slice of the total population in a nation of 350 million or more.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned one particular neighbor of mine here in the past and he’s a guy who tends to keep me a bit more balanced when I consider this question. He’s a smart guy who definitely stays informed about politics. He’ll bring it up from time to time, mentions stories making the rounds on the news and even knows the name of at least one Supreme Court justice. He’s not a low information voter. But he’s also not all that engaged and never goes on rants. He’s a registered Democrat because he filled out his voter registration form as a teenager, yet he’s been voting Republican for a couple of decades now. Why not change it so he can vote in the primary? It just never crosses his mind to do so. Does he like Hillary Clinton? Not really, but she’s not the living incarnation of evil or anything.
In some ways I think my neighbor is a lot more representative of the nation at large than I am. Remember that we can barely get half of the nation’s eligible voters to bother showing up at the polls every four years. (In odd number years it might be a quarter.) Those who do go vote include a lot of folks who don’t pay much attention at all until the final weeks. I just don’t think there’s a lot of “hate” going on. Those approval rating polls never mention the number of phones they had to ring just to find 600 people willing to talk to them. The vast majority simply hang up.
So are we getting ready to elect somebody that most of the nation hates? Not really. They may not “approve” of them when asked, but for the most part we tend to just move on with our lives once the election is over. Subjects like this are, I think, examples of how the political media spends most of its time talking to itself.