WASHINGTON – Nearly half of Republicans regard Democrats as more “immoral,” “lazy” and “dishonest” than other Americans; seven in 10 Democrats view Republicans as “more closed-minded.”
And altogether, about half of respondents in a new poll said the other side makes them “angry” or “afraid.”
While Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton suffer from unfavorable images that are worse – in Trump’s case, much worse – than previous presidential hopefuls, it’s not simply because of their own words and deeds. Their unpopularity exists in a political environment increasingly defined by voters’ negative views of the other side.
The extent of the negativity is central to a detailed survey of the electorate from the Pew Research Center, which found that anger and fear of the opposing political party increasingly drive how American voters think about politics.
Indeed, the survey found, negative perceptions about the other side have emerged as a key motivator for voters, often outranking even how much they believe in what their own party stands for.
This is not politics as usual. Although partisans have long harbored some dislike of the opposition, voters’ views of the other party are now more negative than at any time in the nearly quarter of a century Pew has asked about them, the new study found.
On both sides, majorities now express not just unfavorable, but “very unfavorable” views of the opposing party, up from about one-in-four who felt that way in 2000.
And in both parties, about four in 10 said they view the other side’s positions as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being” – up significantly in just the last two years.
Asked to rate both their own and the other party on a thermometer from 0 to 100, Republicans rated Democrats at 29 – slightly below their rating for atheists. Democrats rated Republicans at 31.
Dislike of the other side intensifies among those most engaged in politics – the people who closely follow political debates, donate money and volunteer.
On the Democratic side, the most highly engaged voters were also more likely to express hope and enthusiasm about their own party. Republicans, however, who are most engaged in politics were significantly more likely to say their own party frustrates them.
The depth of the negative perceptions about the other side helps explain why majorities in both parties have rallied behind their presumptive nominees after contentious primaries.
Among Democrats who voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries, for example, more than two-thirds said the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” and nearly six in 10 said the GOP makes them “angry” – in both cases a larger share than among Clinton voters. About half of Republicans, regardless of whether they supported Trump as their nominee, said they are “afraid” of Democrats.
But though the negative feelings toward the other side help generate party unity, they also raise questions about how either presidential candidate can govern effectively in a country with two camps of approximately equal size that regard each other with antipathy.
Asked about political compromise, about six in 10 on each side said that their side should get more than half of what it wants.
On each side, about four in 10 partisans said it would be easier for them to get along with new neighbors who shared their party affiliation. That was significantly more than those who said a new neighbor would be easier to get along with if he or she liked sports or had children.
About a quarter of Republicans also said it would be easier to get along with a new neighbor who owned guns; about four in 10 Democrats said a gun-owning neighbor would be harder to get along with. About a third of Democrats said it would be easier to get along with a neighbor who had a college degree; eight in 10 Republicans said that would make no difference.
Voters see big differences between the parties on issues. A majority of respondents overall, and about six in 10 on each side, said they see Democratic and Republican policy positions as “very different.” Only about one in eight saw little or no difference.
They don’t, however, always agree with their party’s stand. Most respondents on each side had at least one issue on which they disagreed with their party’s position. Overall, only about one in six Republicans and one in five Democrats said they “almost always” agree with their party.
Republicans agreed most often on illegal immigration and gun policy. Among Democrats, it was health care, climate change and abortion. On other issues, including dealing with the gap between rich and poor and the federal budget deficit, there was less agreement within each party.
But although partisans sometimes disagreed with their own side, more than four in 10 on each side said they “almost never” agree with the other party’s positions. Indeed, they often view those opposing positions as dangerous.
Asked why they identify with the political party they favor, 68 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats said a major reason was because the other side’s policies were “bad for the country.” Only about one in five Democrats and one in six Republicans said the other party had either “a lot” or “some” good ideas. A third of Democrats and four in 10 Republicans said the other side had “almost none.”
Those negative feelings don’t just drive committed partisans. If anything, they loomed larger among respondents who called themselves independents.
As pollsters and political strategists have long known, the vast majority of independents lean reliably toward one or the other of the two major parties. When those voters were asked by the survey to cite major reasons for their inclination, more than half cited opposition to the other side. Only about one-third said a major reason was agreement with their own side’s policies.
The Pew study was based primarily on Internet-based surveys this spring of 4,385 members of the center’s American Trends Panel, a group of more than 8,000 U.S. adults designed to be representative of the national population. The results have a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points in either direction for the full sample, 3.9 percentage points for the Democratic portion and 4.5 percentage points for the Republicans. Some of the results were based on a separate telephone survey of 2,008 American adults conducted in mid-April. Those results have a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points in either direction.
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