Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

Polarization Removes the Ability to Make Distinctions

January 3rd, 2017, 3:25am by Sam Wang



Bruce Springsteen has questioned Donald Trump’s competence to be president. His opinion is typical of the majority of Americans. How could voters have elected someone who is so widely seen as unready for the job? One answer is that polarization impairs the inclination of voters to act upon such problems.

In a Gallup poll released yesterday, about half of Americans expressed pessimism about Donald Trump’s readiness for the Presidency. This is a 30-point deterioration from the previous three presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Trump’s success in 2016 was made possible by partisan polarization. The net favorability of major candidates, whether winners or losers, has declined precipitously over the last sixty years.

It is amazing to think that Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney would attract such opprobrium. Stepping far back from partisan politics, their accomplishments and personal qualities are admirable. Yet by Gallup’s measure, candidates Clinton and Romney were seen as negatively as Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.

This phenomenon is closely related to the polarization that has gripped U.S. politics for the last several decades. Increasingly, voters see the opposition as totally unacceptable. Under such conditions, it becomes harder to detect genuine differences – or to act upon them. High negatives make crossover voting unthinkable.

Also, with such high negatives for both Clinton and Trump, many voters saw both candidates unfavorably, despite the fact that only one of the candidates (Trump) had his/her competence for office seriously questioned. Today, majorities of Americans do not express confidence in Trump’s ability to prevent major scandals, use military force wisely, or handle an international crisis. Trump’s extreme low scores in these domains are concerning for the coming year.

Tags: 2016 Election · President

5 Comments so far ↓

  • Will Hutchinson

    Do we know why there were no numbers for 1996 or 2000? I looked at the dataset in the link, and the numbers were missing there, too.

  • gumnaam

    Yes, but what causes the polarization? It is specific choices made by leaders in one party since the 1990s. Maybe the deeper underlying cause is that they are fighting a losing demographic and cultural battle, and need every advisable (or inadvisable) tactic at their disposal to fight against the inevitability of the change.

    • LondonYoung

      The leading theory for polarization is that we don’t have a dominant party. Just before the civil war democrats were dominant, from civil war to roaring 20′s republicans were dominant, and from great depression to 80′s democrats again. When there is a dominant party, factions in the majority party work with the minority party so as to steer the majority party. Absent a dominant party the idea is to use any temporary window of power to the detriment of the other party before you lose power again.

    • gumnaam

      @ LondonYoung

      OK. But the lack of dominance does not explain the asymmetry in the norm violations and the rule bending.

    • LondonYoung

      I think the GOP breaks the norms for the reasons you gave for polarization – they are on the side of opposing change, when change is naturally coming.

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