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A threat to democracy no one is talking about

Voters usually latch on to a gaffe to support their unfavorable views of politicians

Campaign signs for Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Nikki Haley beside a sign asking voters to write in President Joe Biden before the recent New Hampshire primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Campaign signs for Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Nikki Haley beside a sign asking voters to write in President Joe Biden before the recent New Hampshire primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The country is in the doldrums, divided as a people and unhappy with their leaders and their politics on both sides. The negativity of the electorate toward not just the presidential candidates but both political parties is one of the most important backdrops to the upcoming election.

Their discontent is not merely dissatisfaction with the choice between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump — it reflects a broader negative view of the political process and political discourse that has translated into some of the worst numbers we’ve seen when it comes to the electorate’s view of the direction of the country.

In an NBC News survey released this week, 73 percent of the electorate said the country was headed in the wrong direction, and this was not the only one we have seen at 70 percent or higher. At the end of December, a USA Today-Suffolk University survey had the wrong track at 70 percent; earlier in the month, The Wall Street Journal’s poll was at 71 percent, and there was an ABC News-IPSOS poll reaching a staggering 76 percent last November. Overall, the wrong track numbers over the last couple of years have tended to be in the low- to mid-60s, still not good.

Admittedly, the right track-wrong track numbers have been underwater for years. In fact, the last time we saw positive right track numbers was late spring/summer 2009, but that “era of good feeling” didn’t last long.

While there are many factors that drive the right track-wrong track numbers, the unfavorable view of the presidential candidates and their respective parties certainly plays a role. The most recent YouGov poll (conducted Jan. 28-30), which is generally typical of many other surveys, found Biden’s favorable level at 42 percent against 54 percent unfavorable; Trump was at 40 percent favorable to 57 percent unfavorable. The Democratic Party’s favorable-unfavorable was 39 percent to 54 percent, the Republican Party was roughly the same at 38 percent-53 percent.

Independents’ view of the country’s political leadership was even more unfavorable. Biden at 31 percent favorable against 62 percent unfavorable; Trump was at 34 percent favorable to 60 percent unfavorable; the Democratic Party was 21 percent favorable to 63 percent unfavorable; and the Republican Party was at 23 percent favorable to 58 percent not favorable.

Trying to forge a winning coalition by trying to get people who have an unfavorable view of you to still vote for you is a tall order. So, what happens when you have voters with an unfavorable view of both candidates?

In 2016, 18 percent of the electorate had an unfavorable view of both Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Trump won those voters 47 percent to 30 percent. In 2020, only 3 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of both Biden and Trump.

In 2020, Biden’s favorable-unfavorable of 52 percent to 46 percent was a significant improvement over Clinton’s 43 percent favorable to 55 percent unfavorable. However, in the 2022 exit polls, Biden dropped to 41 percent favorable to 56 percent unfavorable, similar to where he is now. Trump’s favorable-unfavorable in the 2022 exit polls was 39 percent to 58 percent, and it’s basically no better today.

Having unfavorables of greater than 50 percent presents two major problems for political leaders. The first is communications — meaning: connecting with voters. When a candidate with high unfavorables appears on a screen, for many voters, their first reaction is likely to be, “There’s that person I don’t like.” That is a tough way for a politician to start a conversation about ideas and expect it to end well.

Unfortunately, for many political figures, their idea often includes attacking the opposition, which only reinforces voters’ unfavorable views, particularly those of independents. Additionally, in the current hyper-polarized political moment, many viewers, rather than listening to the person they view unfavorably, instead wait for a statement or gaffe that supports their existing view — if they listen at all.

The media, social and otherwise, encourages voter negativity and cynicism with content that focuses on the sensational rather than the substantive, which also reinforces their audience’s unfavorable views and gets them more eyeballs.

Negative campaigns are nothing new but over the last decade, what is new is the focus on the personal rather than policy differences and even more recently, going from attacking the candidates to attacking the candidates’ supporters. This only reinforces the electorate’s view that candidates and political figures believe that attacking not only their opposition but their supporters will get them more support than policy ideas will.

The concept of demonizing the electorate is a recent phenomenon taken to a new level by Clinton with her infamous “deplorables” remark back in 2016. The notion that it is acceptable for political leaders to pit segments of the electorate against each other, sometimes in very personal terms, because of their political views has led to a fractured and destructive hyper-partisan environment.

We have moved from civil political discourse to a listing of grievances rather than a discussion of solutions to critical issues. This focus on fear and anger has been divisive and only benefits a media desperate for clickbait. Independents, in particular, have reacted negatively to this deeply cynical strategy. As seen from the YouGov numbers, less than a quarter of the electorate has a favorable view of either party.

Generating favorability is difficult. However, it does happen. After 9/11, George W. Bush’s favorables increased dramatically in response to his handling of the attacks. Recently, one of the bright spots for Democrats was their focus on positive ads in some of the Senate campaigns in 2022.

As the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter recently pointed out, Democrats spent much more than Republicans on positive messages. Those races she identified were Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada — all losses for Republicans that cost them the Senate majority.

With the parties likely to nominate candidates who only 40 percent of the electorate view favorably, getting to 50 percent will be a difficult challenge for both, especially when the parties themselves can’t reach the 40 percent mark.

But building favorables is key to developing trust and support. As we watch elected officials in Washington struggle to meet voter expectations, it is no wonder the electorate is so unfavorable to the parties and the presidential candidates, and why almost three quarters believe the country is on the wrong track.

This kind of prolonged negative environment causes voters to tune out and lose faith in our political process. For all the talk about threats to democracy, this is a real threat to democracy that is getting very little attention.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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