World·Analysis

How hate for Trump may have triumphed over love for Biden — and Trump

Voters came out in droves to support U.S. president-elect Joe Biden, motivated perhaps more out of their loathing for Donald Trump than their passion for the Democratic candidate.

Poll found 66% of Trump supporters back him strongly, 46% of Biden supporters say the same

A protester shows his antipathy for U.S. President Donald Trump as part of the NYC Remove Trump Mobilization in Times Square in New York on Jan. 31, 2020. Loathing for the current Republican president may have been a greater factor in Joe Biden's election victory than the passion Democrats had for their candidate. (Bryan R Smith/Reuters)

When U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ended her 2016 campaign at a rally in North Carolina, she recited a mantra the party believed would prove successful in defeating Donald Trump: "Love trumps hate."

Yet that slogan, in reverse, may have been a significant key to Trump's defeat in 2020. For it seems that a number of voters supporting Joe Biden may have been motivated more by their loathing for the current Republican president than their passion for the Democratic candidate.

And while polls consistently showed voters for Donald Trump were more enthusiastic about their candidate than Biden voters were for theirs, in the end, opposition to Trump and his presidency may have been just too strong a force to overcome.

"It's not that Democrats or people that voted for Biden didn't like him. They have a general favourable view. But it's hard to identify a lot of excitement about his candidacy," said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and director of the Pennsylvania-based Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

"The excitement came from the idea of getting rid of Donald Trump in the White House."

Or as Jason Whitlock, a sports writer, TV personality and radio host, recently said on Fox News, Trump supporters "love Donald Trump. Biden supporters hate Donald Trump.

"That is their energy source. It has nothing to do with Joe Biden."

Supporters rally with Trump during a campaign event at MBS International Airport in Freeland, Mich., on Sept. 10, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

When Rebecka Puza took a moment recently to explain why she was voting for Joe Biden, she made no mention of the soon-to-be U.S. president-elect. Her attention was squarely on his competition for the U.S. presidency.

"There's no way I was voting for Trump," she said outside her home in Kingston, Penn., just before the election. "He's a terrible person. That's basically it."

Meanwhile, Morning Consult, a data intelligence company, conducted an open-ended online survey in which adults were given a blank space to answer the question:

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"Specifically, what is the one main issue you are concerned about when casting your vote for the 2020 presidential election?"

"Trump" appeared in roughly 14 per cent of all responses, more than any other word. 

'Negative partisanship' on display

Political scientists talk about the concept known as "negative partisanship," and what drives many voters is their anger toward the other side, rather than the deep commitment to their own side, Borick said.

Delegates wave 'Love trumps hate' signs towards the podium during the first session at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016. The slogan was used during Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

"And in the case of Biden, it was on full display this cycle," he said.

Some exit polls suggested voters supported Biden for reasons other than just personal loathing for the president. For example, CBS exit polls found Biden was able to convince enough voters that he could better handle the coronavirus pandemic and that he had the right temperament for the job.

Steven Webster, an assistant political science professor at Indiana University, said voters weren't uniformly casting a ballot against Trump. 

Some voters did, in fact, like Biden and cast an "affirmative" vote for him, said Webster, author of the book American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics.

Still, early indications suggested that a significant number of voters were motivated to get rid of Trump, he said.

"If you're angry at someone, you're going to be really motivated to get off the sidelines, so to speak, and participate," Webster said. "And so I think what was a real driving force in this election was the anger that Democrats had for four-plus years now toward Donald Trump. I think that was crucial."

Police separate Trump supporters and demonstrators supporting election vote counting outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, three days after the presidential polls closed. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

Still, Trump received more than 70 million votes, well above his nearly 63 million in 2016. But Biden, so far, is leading the popular vote, having received more than four million more than Trump.

And this was done after Biden ran the "least energetic and most idea-free campaign in modern history," wrote John Podhoretz, editor for the conservative magazine Commentary.

Biden ran unconventional campaign

Biden's campaign certainly wasn't conventional, with the candidate making fewer campaign stops than usual  His rallies didn't attract the crowds like those of Trump, in part as a deliberate safety measure because of the coronavirus.

However, Borick was skeptical that even without the restrictions, Biden would have been able to pull in the kinds of passionate supporters found at Trump events.  

Trump's rallies, like this one on Nov. 2, 2020, in Avoca, Pa., attracted thousands of supporters, including those who waited hours to ensure a spot at the event. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

"The idea that he'd have screaming mobs of fans out there demonstrating their excitement for him wasn't in line with his candidacy, his approach," Borick said. "In the end, despite critics saying the absence of that would hurt him, the proof is in the pudding."

Instead, the campaign became a referendum about Donald Trump, Borick said.

Yet some Trump supporters were counting on that and were predicting the enthusiasm Trump's supporters had for the president would be key to a victory.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post back in July, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale wrote that "the unprecedented enthusiasm behind the president's re-election efforts stood in stark contrast to the flat, almost nonexistent enthusiasm for Biden." And that advantage, he said, was "the most important factor in the campaign."

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Trump's enthusiasm advantage

Polls consistently showed that Trump's supporters were much more enthusiastic about their candidate than Biden voters. Some Trump supporters would arrive early in the morning at rallies scheduled in the evening, waiting all day just to ensure a spot at the event.

A Pew survey back in August found that when it comes to how strongly voters were backing their chosen candidate, 66 per cent of Trump supporters said they were supporting him strongly, while 46 per cent of Biden supporters said the same for their candidate. 

Trump supporters (30 per cent) were about twice as likely to say they would be excited if their candidate won the 2020 election than Biden supporters (16 per cent) were for their own candidate, the survey found.

Borick's own survey of Pennsylvania in late October found that 82 per cent of Trump supporters were very enthusiastic about their candidate, compared to 48 per cent for Biden. 

Yet part of Trump's problem was that during his presidency, his approval rating had little variance, hovering in the high 30s and low 40s because he had a base who loved him no matter what controversial action he took, Webster said.

"He had a whole swath of the country that didn't like him." 

Biden's rallies, in part because of COVID-19 concerns, didn't draw the number of supporters like those at Trump events. Still, some question whether the president-elect would have been able to attract similar crowds. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Indeed, Podhoretz for Commentary wrote that the election was "the most thoroughgoing repudiation of any national politician in the modern era, save perhaps Jimmy Carter."

While former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were hated by millions, he said, both won re-election and neither generated a "massive counterforce that ended up driving them from office." 

As well, the results of the election reveal no countrywide backlash against the Republican Party. The Senate could remain in Republican hands, depending on the election runoff in Georgia in January. And despite gloomy predictions, Republicans made gains in the House of Representatives and in state legislatures.

Trump's "party flourished without him," Borick said. "He is the glaring weakness."

"You don't have presidents lose and their parties gain. That's just not the way it works."

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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