Over the past few weeks, protests at Donald Trump rallies have commandeered the campaign news cycle.
The protests have indeed been headline-worthy. A white Trump supporter sucker-punched a black protester at a rally earlier this month. Not long afterward, a Trump supporter at a different rally punched a white protester, knocking him to the ground.
Then, of course, in Chicago, protesters clashed with Trump’s supporters and the police, forcing Trump to cancel a rally entirely.
But what do Americans make of all of this?
In an abstract sense, a vast majority of Americans support an individual’s right to protest a political rally. More than three-quarters of respondents (77 percent) in the latest Vox/Morning Consult poll said they believe crowds should leave protesters alone, rather than acting themselves to eject the protesters from rallies.
But the poll of 2,001 registered voters, conducted between March 17 and March 21, found much more partisan reactions to protest situations involving either violent protesters or Donald Trump. (Take a look at the poll’s topline results and crosstabs.)
Liberals and Democrats were the most likely to agree with the statement, "The crowd should ignore the protesters until they are escorted out by police." But Republican and independent voters — even Tea Party supporters — showed overwhelming support for the right to protest.
We then asked the 77 percent of respondents who would prefer to leave a protester alone a follow-up question: What if the protester becomes violent? Of those, 42 percent think it’s okay for the crowd to respond "with force" to a violent protester. The threat of violence is where partisan fissures begin to show: Only 31 percent of Democrats think it’s acceptable to meet violence with violence. But 51 percent of Republicans (and 47 percent of independents) believe force should be warranted if a protester begins to act violently.
That adds a bit of clarity to the partisan squabbling that’s colored discussion of the recent incidents at Trump’s rallies: Liberals can’t understand why conservatives are reacting so harshly to protesters, and conservatives can’t understand why liberals think it’s abhorrent for them to react to protesters acting violently at their rallies.
Opinions about violence become sharply partisan when they pertain specifically to Donald Trump
Our poll asked respondents whom they would specifically blame for the Chicago protest. Fully 54 percent agreed that protesters were responsible for the violence — "if they wanted to protest peacefully, they should have done so." But among Republicans, support for that position rose to 74 percent; among Democrats, it sank to 37 percent.
This makes sense: We know that when partisan information is introduced into an example, people’s partisan instincts determine how they answer questions. But with a significant number of Democrats and independents agreeing with blaming protesters for the violence in Chicago, it seems that protest and violence are two different situations in the minds of voters.
To that end, the electorate is pretty evenly split on the question of whether Trump should bear any blame for violence occurring at his rallies: 30 percent say they pin "a lot" of blame on him, while roughly the same number, 29 percent, say they don’t blame him at all. The split is almost entirely due to differing views among Democrats and Republicans.
More liberals have heard about violence at Trump rallies
One fact that reflects the deep partisan divide over the importance of this issue: Fully 37 percent of Democrats said they’d heard "a lot" about violence at Trump rallies. By contrast, only 23 percent of Republicans said the same; many more said they’d only heard a little about the controversy or hadn’t heard of it at all.
That’s probably because the news sources that Democrats are more likely to read — from mainstream publications to liberal blogs – fixated on the bouts of violence as threats to the functioning of democracy. Conservative media outlets tended to write about the violence less; at least one, Breitbart, actively attempted to tamp down on an alleged assault on its own reporter by Trump’s campaign manager.
And by at least one measure, the media’s attempts to link Trump to violence have failed. Only 14 percent of poll respondents — Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike — think Trump was to blame for his supporter’s attack on a protester; about the same, 16 percent, actually thought it was the protester's fault. (Far more people, 52 percent, blamed the audience member who sucker-punched the protester for causing the violence.)
When people hear Trump casually talk about violence at his rallies, it hurts his image
According to our sample, though voters can’t agree on either the original perpetrators or on the significance of violence at Trump’s rallies, they draw the line at Trump boasting about the violent incidents.
Our poll asked respondents to assess several statements Trump has made regarding protesters and record whether those statements helped his image, hurt it, or had no effect. Without fail, every statement we polled had an overwhelmingly negative impact.
Take the following statement Trump made in Iowa on the day of the caucuses: "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees."
Just 16 percent of voters viewed Trump more favorably after reading that statement. But a whopping 61 percent said it made them view him less favorably, including 45 percent of Republicans.
That pattern held across a range of similar statements, including:
- "See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak."
- "It was really amazing to watch," in reference to seeing his supporters "taking out" a protester.
So while most people don't initially blame Trump for inciting the violence at his rallies, it's clear they feel differently when they see him saying things that suggest he's encouraging it.