One of the defining characteristics of the 2016 election was the unprecedented levels of unpopularity between the two candidates. Another defining feature was its closeness. Although Donald Trump ended up winning over 300 Electoral College votes, he won 75 of those with an average of just a 0.75% margin.
One way in which Trump was able to inch over the line, was in his appeal to those voters who disliked both candidates and who contributed to the unprecedented situation where the number one and number two most disliked candidates of all time were competing against each other.
Commentators were keen to pick up on this. CNBC called it the ‘Revulsion Election’, the Washington Post described it as the ‘Year of the Hated’, and FiveThirtyEight highlighted this record-breaking phenomenon as early as May 2016.
There is now evidence that shows Trump comprehensively benefited from this. In 2016, nearly one in five voters said they actively did not like either candidate. As those voters split, Trump had a 17 point advantage over Hilary Clinton. The difference in states Trump carried most narrowly was even starker.
Fast forward to 2020 and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest Biden has radically flipped the ‘haters’ in his favour. For example, in April, a Quinnipiac poll showed the group of voters were splitting for Biden by 32 points. Earlier in May, a Morning Consult poll came to a similar conclusion, and even more recently a CNN/SSRS poll found the ‘haters’ splitting in Biden’s favour by a huge 50 points.
There has also been increasing talk of Biden’s aims to expand the electoral map beyond the upper Midwestern states the Democrats lost last time. If that is his ambition, then there are early indications that Biden continues to benefit amongst this group. A recent poll conducted in Georgia, for example, saw the group split for the former Vice President by 58 points.
A potential saving grace for Trump is that this year, the ‘haters’ might represent a smaller constituency. In the Quinnipiac poll at least, they only represented 11% of voters compared to nearly 20% in 2016. However, in the Monmouth poll, they represented ‘nearly a quarter of registered voters’ polled, more than in 2016.
While there has been recent polling on that group, it hasn’t received as much focus as I think it needs.
But over the last three and a half years there has been lots of attention paid to other voting groups: suburban women, non-college educated white men, and minority voters each representing relatively minor shifts in their candidate allegiance. With the possible exception of suburban women who are showing signs of swinging back to Democrats, the other groups will likely just solidify their commitment to the party they chose in 2016.
It is worth noting that senior voters are another group that appear to be shifting. A group Democrats have lost by ‘at least 5 points’ in every election since 2004. But Biden is showing strength amongst them. There is a theory that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is only weakening the president’s appeal as well. This is particularly concerning for Trump as important states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan have a higher proportion of voters over 65 years old.
If those older voters were to swing back to Democrats, that would represent a similarly radical shift, but they have already received a lot of analysis whereas the ‘haters’ hitherto have not.
I propose the ‘haters’ are worthy of more consideration. Partly because we do not really know who they are. It is not accurate to say they represent the same body of voters as they did in 2016. Some will have moved over to Trump’s camp.
But that doesn’t diminish their importance by any means. They will represent a large chunk of the electorate (even if it is less than 2016), and they will do so in all the states that matter, not just a select few. Finally, they’re an important group because the opposite — the ‘likers’ — or in other words, voters who say they don’t hate either candidate, are splitting for Trump by similarly large margins. A worrisome trend for Biden.
The question is — how do you appeal to someone who doesn’t find you appealing?