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Trump makes more voters feel bad than Biden does. That’s a problem for the president.

Our poll suggests Americans’ emotions are endangering his reelection bid

- November 1, 2020

As Election Day nears, President Trump’s challenges in his bid for a second term are well known. Survey after survey show voters giving him low marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his response to protests over racial injustice and his personal qualities.

But our recent poll suggests one of Trump’s biggest problems is how he makes many Americans feel. Compared to what they say about Democratic nominee Joe Biden, voters are far more likely to say Trump makes them angry, disgusted and fearful — and less likely to say he makes them proud and hopeful. With political science research showing that emotions play a prominent role in shaping how voters behave, Americans’ feelings about the president are one reason his path to reelection is so fraught.

These conclusions come from the most recent George Washington University Politics poll, a joint venture of GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs, its political science department and its Graduate School of Political Management. The survey of 2,500 registered voters, matched to produce a nationally representative sample, was fielded Oct. 16 to 26 by the firm YouGov.

With Biden holding a 10-point lead nationally, the survey reports what other polls have found: Voters are more confident in Biden’s ability to deal with the pandemic, racial justice and equality, and health care than they are of Trump’s. The two are tied on the economy, an issue on which Trump has maintained an advantage for much of the campaign. Biden also holds a lead on every personal trait we asked about, from leadership to empathy to moral character to patriotism. Just 43 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion of Trump.

But some of Trump’s biggest deficits come from questions about how often the candidates make voters feel a set of emotions. Following a common approach, we asked about two positive emotions (pride and hope) and three negative ones (fear, disgust and anger). We report here the percentage of respondents who said a candidate made them feel an emotion at least “some of the time.”

By about 10 percentage points, voters are more likely to say Biden, not Trump, makes them feel proud and hopeful. But the most substantial divides emerge on the negative emotions, which Trump is more likely to elicit.

For instance, while 57 percent said Biden has made them feel disgusted at some point, 73 percent said the same about Trump. And 72 percent said Trump has made them angry, compared with just 58 percent for Biden. Trump also holds a 10-point “lead” on making people feel afraid.

While these sentiments are no doubt genuine for many voters, some of this, of course, is partisan cheerleading. If you’re a Biden supporter and a pollster asks you whether Trump makes you angry, it’s no surprise that you’d say yes, even if only to emphasize how much you dislike a president you want to see voted out of office.

But these emotions go beyond Biden boosters. Although the number of undecided voters in our poll is small — just 4 percent — roughly 7 in 10 said Trump had made them angry, disgusted, and afraid. While just 27 percent of Republicans said Trump made them afraid, more than 40 percent said he had made them disgusted and angry. Those numbers are significantly higher than the number of Democrats who say the same about Biden.

At one level, the importance of these emotions can be exaggerated. In the 2016 American National Election Studies pre-election survey, an even larger share of voters expressed anger (79 percent), disgust (82 percent) and fear (72 percent) about Trump — and he still won.

But one big difference this year is how voters view the Democratic nominee. In 2016, 71 percent of respondents said Hillary Clinton made them angry, 13 percentage points higher than the share who say the same thing about Biden now. The anger gap between Trump and his opponent is nearly twice as big this year.

One reason this is important is the connection between these emotions and political participation. In the GW Politics poll, we asked respondents whether they had engaged in eight different political activities over the past three months, including giving money to a 2020 candidate running for office or going to a political meeting. The more people express negative emotions about Trump (and positive feelings about Biden), the more they report being politically involved.

Those findings are consistent with research that suggests anger in particular serves to mobilize. Studies have shown that when people are mad, they are more likely to show up at the polls (or mail in their ballots), a phenomenon that may explain high Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterms and may be spurring left-leaning voters this year.

Indeed, people who express anger about Trump report about 24 percent more participation than people who don’t feel that way. That is about five times the same effect produced by feeling anger toward Biden.

Of course, bad feelings don’t prevent voters from supporting a candidate. Many of the respondents in our survey who said Trump made them disgusted or angry also said they will vote for him or have already done so. The president’s signal achievements — appointing conservative judges, signing into law a massive tax cut, imposing immigration restrictions — are enough to overcome some voters’ unease. To that point, three-quarters of Trump voters described their support as “very enthusiastic.”

But if the president is to win reelection, he is likely to do so because he is able to thread the needle in the electoral college, not because he persuaded Americans, suburbanites or not, to “please like me.”

Kimberly Gross is an associate professor of media and public affairs and a researcher affiliated with the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University.