President Donald Trump is betting that his support for law enforcement is going to help him this November.
“I am your president of law and order,” Trump said last week in his first formal address on the subject of protests against police brutality. “Where there is no justice, there is no liberty. Where there is no safety, there is no future.”
It’s a strategy that resonated with some in 2016, but new, early polling raises doubts about whether it’ll be as effective a message as it was four years ago.
It’s worth noting that it’s too early to draw a definitive conclusion about how the current demonstrations will affect the 2020 election, which is five months away. But here’s what we know so far.
New polls show Joe Biden leading Trump as protests continue
Since protests began two weeks ago, multiple polls have found Trump continuing to trail Biden, both among voters overall and independent voters.
According to a Monmouth poll fielded between May 28 and June 1, 51 percent of independent voters support Biden while 35 percent back Trump. That’s a 4-point swing from a Monmouth poll conducted in early May, when 47 percent of independent voters backed Biden and 35 percent supported Trump. A Morning Consult survey conducted between May 25 and May 31 found a similar dynamic: In it, 38 percent of independent voters backed Biden while 33 percent supported Trump.
Most voters, 73 percent, also support the protests and just 33 percent approve of Trump’s handling of them, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last week. In that same survey, 67 percent of independent voters backed the peaceful protests while only 28 percent approved of how Trump has handled them.
And when people were asked specifically about the impact of George Floyd’s death and the protests on their voting decision, a larger proportion of independents said recent events made them more likely to vote for Biden. According to a Morning Consult survey fielded between May 31 and June 1, 34 percent of independent voters said they were more likely to vote for Biden while 22 percent were more likely to vote for Trump.
In short, Trump’s recurring appeals to “law and order,” which have included a push to use military forces to quell the protests in various cities, do not seem to be connecting with a majority of voters this cycle.
“The race continues to be largely a referendum on the incumbent. The initial reaction to ongoing racial unrest in the country suggests that most voters feel Trump is not handling the situation all that well,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, in a statement.
The “law and order” message has appealed to Republicans and some independents in the past
There’s an obvious reason Trump is touting his support for law enforcement: The strategy has worked before.
Former President Richard Nixon, for example, rode that message to the White House in 1968. And in 2016, Trump consistently trumpeted that he backed law enforcement but did so in a manner that served as a racist “dog whistle” for many voters, according to a new paper from researchers Kevin Drakulich, Kevin Wozniak, John Hagan, and Devon Johnson.
“In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate,” Trump said at the Republican National Convention in 2016. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.” (Now, at a moment when many Americans are expressing anger at police, Trump has begun to make statements using similar dog-whistle phrases.)
Drakulich’s paper, which relied on data from more than 3,000 voters in 2016, examined whether support of Black Lives Matter and the police — as well as a person’s level of racial resentment — was tied to a voters’ ultimate choice in a candidate. (Levels of racial resentment were determined using a battery of questions that measured voter attitudes on race.) And he found that many Trump voters did have an affinity toward police.
“[Voters] who felt warmly toward the police, saw the police as unbiased, and felt coldly toward BLM were all substantially more likely to vote for Trump than were people who expressed the opposite feelings,” the paper notes.
But Drakulich says that police support alone does not indicate whether a voter will back Trump. Drakulich and the rest of the team determined that a voter’s warmth toward police was associated with backing for Trump if that voter was also aligned with the GOP and had high levels of racial resentment. “Those who said they supported the police were more likely to vote for Trump, but this was because they also tended to be people who identified as Republican and felt racial resentment,” they write.
Among independents, the 2016 data was mixed, Drakulich notes: Those who had high racial resentments were more likely to vote for Trump, and those who were more likely to see the police as biased were less likely to do so. Per his conclusions, liberals won’t be the only ones motivated by these protests and what Trump says about them come November: Republicans will be, too.
“The protests will continue to raise awareness and motivate people who care about racial justice to vote, but they will also raise racial anxieties in other voters that can be exploited by politicians using ... pro-police rhetoric — as Donald Trump has been,” Drakulich told Vox.
Independent voters’ views on police are shifting
While promoting his ties to law enforcement has benefited Trump in the past, it is not clear doing so will continue to pay dividends with voters beyond his base. Perceptions about law enforcement have shifted over the last few years in the wake of growing scrutiny of police brutality, including among independents.
In 2016, Trump’s endorsements of police coincided with high respect for law enforcement. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias reported, respect for police was up by more than 10 points in 2016 among both white and nonwhite respondents in a Gallup poll, compared to 2015. Overall, 76 percent of people said they had a great deal of respect for police in 2016 versus 64 percent who said the same in 2015.
And though law enforcement remains broadly popular in America — 71 percent of respondents in the Monmouth poll are satisfied with the job they’re doing — public awareness of police bias and abuses has grown in the last few years. For example, 41 percent of independents agreed that black people were treated less fairly by police in a 2015 Gallup poll, while 52 percent did in 2018.
And as reported by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, that same trend line holds in polling that’s been done about police use of force:
A new study from Monmouth University, released Tuesday, found that 57 percent of Americans today believe police are more likely to use excessive force against black people.
That represents an increase from the 34 percent of registered voters who said the same in 2016 following the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and the 33 percent who said so in 2014 after a grand jury did not indict a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner.
Since 2016, there’s been a slight shift in how much people trust police, too.
That year, 56 percent of people expressed overall confidence in the police, and in 2019, this number declined slightly to 53 percent, according to a recurring Gallup survey. A caveat: The decrease is within the 4 percent margin of error on the surveys conducted in both years.
Still, this dip could well reflect a slight change in attitude. For example, in the same time frame, confidence in the military stayed constant, with 73 percent of people who were polled expressing confidence in the institution in both 2016 and 2019.
“Until 2010, most people just had no idea what communities were going through,” says Georgetown law professor Christy Lopez, who previously worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. “Between the use of phone cameras and the movement for black lives making this information known, and the federal government bringing lawsuits investigating police violence, you couldn’t ignore it.”
The decline the Gallup survey found between 2016 and 2019 appears to have been spurred largely by Democrats, but independents saw a decrease as well. In 2016, 46 percent of Democrats had strong confidence in the police, a number that declined to 34 percent in 2019. Similarly, in 2016, 54 percent of independents had strong confidence in the police, and that decreased to 50 percent in 2019.
The latter dip is small. But small changes in independent voters could swing electoral votes during the presidential election, particularly in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, both of which Trump carried by less than 1 percentage point in 2016.
Ultimately, too, Trump’s efforts to frame himself as a “law and order” president could backfire given his status as the incumbent and the crises the country currently faces in both addressing police violence and the pandemic. “When disorder is all around them, voters tend to blame the person in charge for the disorder—and, sometimes, punish those who exploit it for political gain,” writes Rick Perlstein for Mother Jones.
There are still questions about how the protests will affect voter preferences
Beyond anything said or done by the president, there are questions about whether the protests themselves will affect voter decisions.
Researchers have looked toward history for parallels, though much is unique about the current political climate and Trump’s presidency. In his work, Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow found that the violence at civil rights protests in 1968 likely compelled some voters to support Richard Nixon, who campaigned heavily on “law and order.”
“If your county was proximate to violent protests, then that county voted six to eight percentage points more toward Nixon in November,” Wasow told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner in a recent interview. His conclusions were based on an analysis of 137 protests that took place across the country following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 serve as a more recent example of protests against police violence that took place during an election year.
Based on the voter turnout rates between the 2014 and 2010 midterms, Charles Ellison, a political strategist and correspondent for WURD Radio, suggested that Democrats need to take serious steps to engage with protesters — and consider policy reforms that would energize them this fall — in order to prevent declines in turnout. He pointed to such decreases in 2014 as an example; that same year, Republicans retook the Senate and won a larger majority in the House.
“Following Ferguson, voter participation rates dropped several percentage points between the 2010 and 2014 midterms,” he told Vox. “It seems counterintuitive for turnout to fall like that, but it reflects many people assuming traditional pathways of political and civic engagement aren’t working for them.”
Between 2010 and 2014, voter turnout for the general election declined from 41 percent to 36 percent.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about how voters will react in November
The key caveat in all this is that the November election is still several months away and it’s unclear how public opinion will change between now and then.
Right now, most independent voters support the protests. In the Morning Consult poll, fielded last weekend, 52 percent of independent voters said they backed the protests while 20 percent said they opposed them. The most recent Reuters/Ipsos survey also found that 53 percent of independent voters are sympathetic to the protesters while 40 percent approved of how police were handling them.
What is certain is that the protests have drawn attention to the problem of police violence in a way that will make the issue — particularly if demonstrations continue through the summer — a core one candidates will have to address.
Howard University law professor Justin Hansford, who was actively involved with the Ferguson protests, says this increased awareness is a direct byproduct. “I believe they would have never spoken about policing during a presidential debate if it wasn’t for this,” he told Vox.