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Why our presidential candidates have record-low favorable ratings

A protester holds a caricature of  presidential candidate Donald Trump during a demonstration against racism and Trump's recent remarks concerning Muslims on December 10, 2015, in New York City.
A protester holds a caricature of presidential candidate Donald Trump during a demonstration against racism and Trump's recent remarks concerning Muslims on December 10, 2015, in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Among the most remarked-upon aspects of this presidential election is the fact the two major party candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are the two candidates with the highest unfavorable ratings since modern polling was invented.

The standard explanation for their dismal ratings is that they are both flawed candidates. Certainly they have their problems. But take a moment to do the following thought experiment: What if Republicans had nominated Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio and Democrats had nominated Bernie Sanders? Would any of these candidates have had high favorability rankings at this point?

I'm pretty sure the answer would be no. And here's the reason: We are at an unusual moment in American politics, in which the coalitions underlying both parties are falling apart and divisions among competing factions are growing. In such a moment, it's hard to conceive of either party finding a truly unifying candidate, a candidate who can garner the enthusiasm of the entire party.

And in the absence of such a candidate, a party has only one strategy left to it: Blast the hell out of the other party's candidate until fear and hatred make the choice clear. You might not love your team's candidate, but the other team's candidate is a true menace.

This lack of affirmative consensus means the parties can only unify in the negative, in opposition to the other party.  No wonder neither candidate has enthusiastic support. In that, both Trump and Clinton are products of this particular moment in political history. For all their problems, their biggest weaknesses may be that the parties they represent both lack a meaningful consensus in what they should stand for.

The sudden decline in satisfaction with candidates

The graph below comes from the Pew Research Center. It describes the remarkable downward turn in voter satisfaction with presidential candidates over the past two election cycles, dissatisfaction that has been remarkably consistent across both parties.

Pew Research Center

In 2008, almost three-quarters of voters were happy with their choices for president. Voters had been increasingly happy with their choices for the past few cycles. Then in 2012, satisfaction began to decline. And it really took a nosedive in 2016.

Was it the candidates themselves? Maybe. But was Hillary Clinton so much more flawed than John Kerry? Was Mitt Romney worse than John McCain? The time trend suggests something else has been happening.

Was it negative advertising? Certainly negative advertising has been increasing.

Was it negative campaign coverage? Yes, that's been increasing as well. And it's been particularly negative this campaign.

But both of these factors have been increasing for a while. The 2000s were not a particularly halcyon era of positive campaigning, yet we were collectively pretty happy with our choices then, and net unfavorable ratings were stable.

The big thing that's changed is that the two parties have become much more internally divided over the past several years — divisions that have become particularly apparent this election. And that means it's harder and harder for either party to unify around a single candidate. So it doesn't matter whom the party nominates. Some group of voters within that party is going to be unhappy.

And what's a party or candidate to do when it can't unify voters around its own candidate? Easy: Attack the other side. Whatever you think of Clinton, Democrats say, Trump would be a disaster. Whatever you think of Trump, Republicans say, Clinton would be a disaster. And this is how most voters indeed now see the election.

Political scientists call this phenomenon "negative partisanship," and they have documented its steady rise in recent years. Voters are less and less enthusiastic about their own party. But they really hate the other party.

Again, let's think about the 2016 primaries. What if Democrats had nominated Bernie Sanders? Clinton supporters would not be enthusiastic about Sanders. And so the party, to win, would mobilize around hating Trump (or whomever the Republicans had nominated), while Republicans would be relentless in attacking Sanders's socialism.

What if Republicans had nominated Cruz? Or Rubio? Would they have really unified the Republican Party around their vision for America? Given that neither Cruz nor Rubio could conceivably represent the vision of a majority of Republican voters, the main difference with a Trump campaign would probably have been a more disciplined series of Clinton attack memes and fewer outrageous statements of the candidate's own. The party would have rallied around hatred of Clinton, not enthusiasm for Cruz or Rubio.

Or think through 2012. Republican primary voters were not particularly enthusiastic about Mitt Romney. But eventually they settled on him because they couldn't settle on anyone else. Republican strategists tried to win in 2012 by making the election a referendum on Obama, since hatred of Obama was the one unifying force mobilizing Republican voters, and presidential advertising in 2012 was more negative than ever before, with only 14 percent of presidential ads classified as "positive" by the Wesleyan Media Project.

As one intriguing data point here, note that the number of voters identifying as "independent" is now at a near-record high, at 42 percent of voters, far greater than the 29 percent identifying as Democrats and the 26 percent identifying as Republicans.

Gallup

Now, we have to be careful in not over-interpreting these trends. "Independents" are not a meaningfully distinct class of voters. Most "independents" actually vote like reliable partisans, and so analysts often refer to these voters as "leaners." But identifying as "independent" is a conscious choice that reflects dissatisfaction with the parties.

And note that these independent "leaners" are primarily motivated by revulsion for the other party's policies, according to Pew's survey data. They don't feel any great enthusiasm for their own parties, only confidence that the other party is worse for the country.

Pew Research Center

While it's tempting to blame some of the public's dissatisfaction on Trump's uniquely insult-driven brand of politicking and how it has dominated this election, Trump's style did not come out of nowhere. Political campaigning has been quite negative for a while now. Trump seems to understand that political victory in these times comes primarily from disqualifying your opponents. In that sense, he really is a product of this particular moment.

Will we continue to dislike our presidential candidates, whomever they may be?

It's hard to see how this dynamic goes away anytime soon. Think ahead to 2020. If Republicans were divided this primary, just imagine the bitterness next time around. Which side is going to lay down its arms? What candidate could possibly unify the Republican Party? I can't think of any (though I welcome suggestions).

And if Hillary Clinton runs for a second term, imagine the unlikely series of events it would take for Democrats to be any more enthusiastic about her in 2020. Likely, it would require her getting a Republican Congress to support an Elizabeth Warren–approved agenda. Good luck with that.

Almost certainly, factions within both parties will continue to struggle with each other for a little while to come. This may result in less popular presidential candidates for a little while.

But this might not be such a terrible thing. It could restore some long-lost opportunity for leadership to Congress. Particularly if divisions within parties overwhelm divisions between parties, we could see a decline in partisanship in Congress and a flourishing of cross-partisan creativity. Maybe it seems like a long shot. But it might be less unlikely than you think.