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The George Floyd protests will not help Trump win reelection. Here’s why.

Let’s check the polling.

- June 2, 2020

As protests against racial injustice continue throughout the country, many are wondering how the civil unrest will affect the 2020 presidential election.

Some suspect President Trump’s threats to use military force to restore “law and order” could help his reelection efforts. After all, academic research suggests that 1960s white backlash against rising racial tensions and urban violence helped the Republican Party in general and bolstered Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign to restore law and order in particular.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump echoed those calls for “law and order” in response to Black Lives Matter protests. The strategy may have worked, too. Among whites who voted for Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012, those who scored high on racial resentment were more likely than others to switch their votes in 2016 to support Trump, the Republican nominee.

But the current racial unrest, sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody, will probably hurt Trump’s reelection prospects more than it’ll help, for several reasons.

Chaos is not good for incumbents

First, Trump is the incumbent.

“Law and order” in the face of civil unrest is a powerful message to run against a political party that has controlled the presidency. It’s all the more effective against a Democratic Party that has been labeled soft on crime and has already held the White House for eight years, which was the case in 1968 and 2016.

But it’s much harder for an incumbent to run against disorder on his own watch. Presidents tend to get blamed for bad things that happen during their terms. Research suggests that they’re even punished for natural disasters and other events beyond the White House’s control.

Trump is all the more likely to be blamed for the unrest because many have accused the president’s rhetoric and actions of fueling chaos, violence and discord. Historian Kevin M. Kruse wrote about this in detail Tuesday in The Washington Post. Journalist Ezra Klein put it succinctly here:

Chaos and discord are bad enough for an incumbent president running for reelection; being accused of actively contributing to it makes that worse.

Americans do not trust Trump on race relations

Perhaps more important, the public views Trump as a racially divisive figure at a time when racial reconciliation is needed.

As Philip Rucker reported this weekend, “Trump’s record of racially insensitive and sometimes outright racist comments over the years has led many Democrats and even some Republicans to conclude that he does not fully comprehend the nation’s history of racism and the corresponding tensions that live on today.”

Polling data certainly supports this point. The public has consistently viewed Trump’s handling of race relations worse than his performance on just about any other issue.

Graph: Michael Tesler. Results accessed from the Roper Center’s iPoll databank.
Graph: Michael Tesler. Results accessed from the Roper Center’s iPoll databank.

The figure above, which draws on four nationally representative surveys conducted during the late summer months of 2019, shows just how poorly the public has viewed Trump’s performance on this issue. Americans have given Trump low marks for how he’s handled most issues other than the economy. But they’ve even more strongly disapproved of his performance on race relations, consistently rating him at about 30 points underwater throughout his presidency.

That’s already showing up in the earliest polling on the protests. Trump’s tweet below, which many decried as racist, and Twitter flagged for glorifying violence, was one of the president’s most unpopular.

YouGov has asked Americans to evaluate Trump’s tweets since the early days of his presidency. The tweet above drew unusually strong disapproval — with a plurality of 40 percent rating it “terrible,” a majority of 52 percent rating it “bad” or “terrible,” and 31 percent calling it “good” or “great.”

Moreover, the most recent polling shows that most Americans think Trump is racist. In a YouGov-Yahoo survey conducted this past weekend, 52 percent said the president is a racist compared with only 37 percent who said he is not.

So it’s not surprising that early polling shows strong public disapproval of how the president is handling the protests. In the latest Morning Consult Poll, only 30 percent said he’s doing an “excellent,” “very good” or “good” job of addressing the situation. A plurality of 42 percent, meanwhile, think he’s doing a “poor” job, and a majority of 54 percent think he’s doing a poor or “only fair” job of responding to the protests.

Implications for November

The more that the protests highlight the need to improve the country’s ruptured race relations, then, the more it is likely to harm the president’s odds of reelection. In fact, some influential political science research argues that the whole goal of presidential campaigns is to emphasize issues where they have advantages and their opponents do not.

There may be no issue on which Trump has more liabilities than his handling of race relations.