Two in five feel US election atmosphere is aggressive, hostile or poisonous

Most Americans now find electoral politics largely toxic
- Professor Michael Bruter
Protest Angry
"I'm so angry I made a sign." Caroline Gunston, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The new Election Hostility Barometer from the Electoral Psychology Observatory (EPO) at LSE and Opinium reveals US national mood six months before the Presidential election.

With less than six months until the Presidential Election, a new report reveals US adults find the atmosphere has already turned negative across the country. Two in five describe the mood as divisive (45%), hostile, frustrating (both 44%) or aggressive (43%), and 38% even say it’s poisonous.

Launched on Tuesday 12 May 2020, The Election Hostility Barometer created by insight agency Opinium and the EPO at the London School of Economics and Political Science captures sentiment towards the upcoming Presidential Election. The barometer reflects how the country is feeling and responding to the current pandemic.

The Election should take place as normal

Despite current pandemic conditions and social restrictions imposed, the report found three quarters (73%) of US adults still want the election to go ahead as planned in November. Three in five (57%) would not be happy with postponing the election until 2021, and 52% are opposed to the idea of delaying elections in states that have been severely affected by the crisis while the rest of the country votes as planned. Younger adults however are far more supportive of a postponement, with 42% of 18-24 year olds approving of the idea (compared to only 25% in opposition).

Opinion is split as to whether the election format should be amended, with half (49%) of US adults support all polling stations being closed, and an all-absentee (postal) election nationwide instead. Nearly two-thirds of Democrat voters (66%) would support an all-absentee ballot nationwide. 

Frustration and insults: the spiral of electoral hostility

The Electoral Hostility Barometer also found that many US adults harbour negative feelings towards opposite voters. Just under half (47%) admit they feel a sense of frustration, two fifths (42%) express distrust and 38% even feel disgust for those who vote for a different political party.

Nearly half (47%) occasionally or frequently experience angry reactions from people who vote differently from them, while 42% have occasionally or frequently experienced insults and even threats for a quarter (23%) of the population.

Americans are largely supportive of restrictions to civil liberties to fight Coronavirus but also terrorism and environmental disasters

The Election Hostility Barometer also analysed Americans’ attitudes towards civil liberties as a majority of the country has become used to severe restrictions to their usual ways of life in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The majority of Americans feel the restrictions to major threats such as  coronavirus which are currently in place are worth it (always and often worth the cost)  – including stay-at-home orders even if they contradict freedom of movement (74%), closing schools (73%), restricting non-essential economic activity even if it leads to mass unemployment (65%) and investing heavily in public health facilities even if it results in a major tax increase (67%). It is worth noting that even Republican voters are very strongly in support of all those measures albeit less than their Democrat counterparts.

However, only a minority support allowing Government to track citizens’ movement using contact tracing technology even if it infringes on privacy (42%) or the police getting additional preventive detention powers (40%).

Most Americans would support similar sacrifices in the context of major terrorist and environmental threats.

Dr Sarah Harrison, Deputy-Director of the Electoral Psychology Observatory commented: “One of the least well understood consequences of the coronavirus crisis pertains to how it affects when and how citizens want elections to happen and how they believe their lives should adapt to health, environmental, and terrorists threats they expect to be increasingly disruptive. Our Hostility Barometer provides unique insights on this which will become incredibly important to leaders for years to come.”

Professor Michael Bruter, Director of The Electoral Psychology Observatory added: “Our new book, Inside the Mind of a Voter has introduced unprecedented ways to conceive and measure electoral hostility and the perceived atmosphere of an election and we are now able to better understand how they compare across countries and elections. Most Americans now find electoral politics largely toxic and increasing numbers blame fellow citizens for that. Our new Hostility Barometer will help us to see how those attitudes evolve throughout the campaign.”

Behind the article

The full report is available at US hostility barometer.

Opinium surveyed 2,003 nationally representative US adults from 30th April- 4th May 2020.