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What Do Voters Want: Confrontation or Compassion?

aw2
July 21, 2020

In 2016, Donald Trump ran as an outsider and disruptor. That message resonated with voters who were frustrated with a 'broken' or 'rigged' political system where gridlock had become the norm. It also helped that Trump was running against eight years of Democratic control of the White House and an opponent who was the living embodiment of establishment politics. According to exit polling that year, the candidate quality of "can bring change" was the most important to voters by more than 17 points. And, Trump carried these voters by a whopping 68 percent. 

That was then. Today, our lives and our politics are in a constant state of disruption. But, not necessarily in a good way. Most of us are desperate to get back to the 'before time' when we could feel safe sending our kids to school, visiting our grandparents or flying on an airplane. The president's tenure has been marked by never-ending chaos and drama. The country and its voters are exhausted and ready for something more stable and steady from their government. 

That's undoubtedly what the Biden campaign is counting on. His latest ad casts him as an empathetic figure who will provide reliable and compassionate government. In the ad, he tells voters: "If you're struggling. If you're worried about how you're going to get through the day, I will not abandon you. We are all in this together. We'll fight this together and together we will emerge from this stronger than we were before we began." 

Trump is meeting this moment with his traditional guns blazing approach. As one GOP strategist told us the other day, he operates best when he can confront and contrast. He isn't interested in fighting over the pandemic. Instead, he wants to bring Biden and the Democrats onto his turf; the social and cultural war. His latest ad warns that instead of bringing calm and stability, a Biden presidency will unleash a different kind of disruption, one led by violent leftists who will throw our cities into chaos and anarchy. 

So, who's right? Does America really want an empathic president who will return our lives to the pre-pandemic normalcy? Do they reject the premise that returning to traditional government with its long-standing structural deficiencies is the answer? Do they want to continue with the change that a Trump presidency has provided or a return to a more stable status quo that Biden would represent?

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that Americans are pretty evenly divided on these questions. When asked about the type of candidate they'd prefer for President and Congress, 44 percent picked those who will "confront and challenge the establishment in government to shake up how it operates," while 46 percent would rather have leaders who will "bring competence and compassion to the way government operates." 

Given how often I hear the word exhausted from those studying swing voters, I was somewhat surprised to see “competence and compassion” only narrowly besting "confront and challenge." My first thought when I saw these numbers was that there could be a lot of liberals, young people and voters of color in that 44 percent cohort. After all, we've seen thousands of people taking to the streets this summer demanding changes to a political, social and economic system that has systemically discriminated against Black people. 

But, when I looked through the cross tabs provided to me by NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters, I found that those who want to challenge the establishment and those who want to see a more compassionate return to normalcy fall along familiar political lines.


Most Republicans (64 percent) like the “confront and challenge” approach while most Democrats (70 percent), pick "competence and compassion." Almost two-thirds of white Evangelicals and 55 percent of white men with less than a college degree support confront and challenge, while 66 percent of liberals and 54 percent of African Americans wanted to see competence and compassion. In other words, even though the poll question did not contain the words "Trump" or "Biden," voters in the Trump coalition stuck with “confront and challenge” while those in the Biden cohort chose “competence and compassion."

Among independent voters, "confront and challenge" beats out "competence and compassion" by nine points (51-42 percent). But, it's hard to know what confront and challenge mean to them. Are they supportive of Trump's attacks on Governors and local elected officials who aren't opening schools or the economy fast enough? Or, are they more responsive to messages from Democratic congressional candidates who boast of eschewing corporate PAC money and attack their GOP opponents for being in the back pocket of DC special interests?

But, when we try to understand why older voters, especially those in the 65+ demographic, are currently supporting Biden over Trump, this idea of competence and compassion could be a big reason. Fifty-one percent of those who are retired and 50 percent of those who are 65 years old or older prefer candidates who emphasize compassion and competence. 

As with every survey, it's important not to read too much into one question. But, it does help remind us that even while Americans are yearning to 'get back to normal', we are deeply divided into what normal would look like.