Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Exploring the concept of negative partisanship — and how it might affect November’s results

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A supporter shouting at reporters during President Donald Trump's June 20 rally in Duluth.

The voter turnout on Tuesday in Minnesota was the highest of any Minnesota primary in more than 20 years, (although primary turnouts are always lower than general elections). The turnout on the Democratic side was roughly double the Republican side. To overstate the obvious, if Democrats double Republican turnout in November, the Dems will win everything.

But that’s just an “if.” You could torture those numbers too much, especially if you are trying to use them to see what’s going to happen next. Considering that in the 2016 general election, almost every fool who tried tell us what would happen predicted that Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump, I suggest we all get out of the habit of demanding to know what’s going to happen, and that people in the pundit class develop a serious case of humility about their ability to see the future.

But, despite all of that well-founded humility, I do want to encourage you to think about a somewhat fashionable concept in political science, which will inevitably lead to the temptation to think about the future.

The concept has been called “negative partisanship.” Negative partisanship refers to those voters who are more motivated to vote by their fears of the bad things the opposition party will do than they are by the good things they hope their own party will do. (In 1992, the Democratic presidential ticket put out a button urging voters to vote their hopes, not their fears. Negative partisanship is roughly the opposite. It is voting one’s fears.)

Survey data makes quite clear that more and more voters are more and more motivated by their dislike and fear of the other party than by their enthusiasm for their own ticket.

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University has been a leader in developing and presenting the arguments that over recent cycles the electorate has been steadily more motivated by their fears of what the other party will do than their enthusiasm for what their own party will do.

“Our research shows that Americans increasingly are voting against the opposing party more than they are voting for their own party,” Abramowitz wrote last year in Politico.

The data are quite convincing. In a more scholarly article, Abramowitz cited numbers from the American National Election Studies, which has surveyed voters for more than  70 years, and which has asked voters since 1978 to rate the warmth of their feelings for both major parties on a “feelings thermometer.”

The average positivity of those feelings has gone down steadily and, in 2016, the percentage of respondents who said they had a favorable opinion of both parties hit a record low. The average positive rating by respondents toward their own party has gone down fairly steadily over the years, but the average rating for the “other” party has gone down much, much more. That created a big gap, but also led Abramowitz to argue that voters are less motivated by enthusiasm for their own party and more motivated by feelings bordering on fear and hatred for the other.

In an effort to explain the concept to a non-scholarly audience, Abramowitz wrote in Politico:

Our research shows that Americans increasingly are voting against the opposing party more than they are voting for their own party. …

There’s a longer-term danger to our democratic system here, that is likely to survive well beyond Trump. In today’s environment, rather than seeking to inspire voters around a cohesive and forward-looking vision, politicians need only incite fear and anger toward the opposing party to win and maintain power. Until that fundamental incentive goes away, expect politics to get even uglier.

And then, in a tortured sports metaphor that doesn’t really work for me (unless we’re talking about the New York Yankees), Abramowitz wrote:

The concept is pretty simple: Over the past few decades, American politics has become like a bitter sports rivalry, in which the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose. Republicans might not love the president, but they absolutely loathe his Democratic adversaries. And it’s also true of Democrats, who might be consumed by their internal feuds over foreign policy and the proper role of government were it not for Trump.

Negative partisanship explains nearly everything in American politics today — from why Trump’s base is unlikely to abandon him even if, as he once said, he were to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, to why it was so easy for vulnerable red-state Democrats to resist defecting on the health care bill.

Consider, for instance, that while Trump’s approval ratings have lately been in the mid- to upper 30s, he has maintained support of the overwhelming majority of Republican voters — around 80 percent in Gallup’s tracking poll. And that’s what matters to him and to most Republican members of Congress. The president understands that as long as that Republican base remains loyal to him, he is unlikely to face a serious challenge from GOP members of the House and Senate. He also knows that the surest way to keep the support of his base is by attacking Democrats, especially the two most prominent leaders of the Democratic Party — Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What looks like an unhealthy Twitter obsession over “Crooked Hillary” and her emails is more likely a team-building exercise—a shrewd effort to keep his party focused on their shared enemy: Democrats. And so far, it’s working for him.

This is a long way from my growing up years in the 1950s, when even Democrats “liked Ike.” Although it’s alarming, it resonates for me. But, with apologies for writing too long, let me finish with the thoughts of another political scientist who builds on Abramowitz.

Rachel Bitcofer, who seems to work on election projections for the Wason Center for Public Policy, endorses negative partisanship as a way of explaining why many voters turn out, but adds that voters are even more motivated  to turn out if the party they favor is out of power, because the experience of having the opposing party in power adds to their motivation.

It kind of makes sense to me. In an essay titled “Signs, Signs, Everywhere Are Signs: Why Democrats Will Win Big in the 2018 Midterms,” she adds:

Out of power partisans vote because fear is an excellent motivator. Especially the kind of fear that comes from seeing the opposition party enacting policies you don’t support and stacking the federal courts with judges with the “wrong” ideology.

Republican success in recent national elections fed on a desperate backlash among Republicans at seeing Obama in power. She writes:

For Republicans, elections in the Obama era, both big and small, were framed as a referendum on Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. This brilliant messaging, combined with a complacent Democratic electorate, allowed Republicans to over perform their share of the electorate by 5 points in the 2010 midterms and 10 points in 2014 in midterms. It is negative partisanship among opposition party voters that drives the midterm effect, not movement of independent voters back and forth between the parties.

Because of negative partisanship Democrats will have a significant enthusiasm advantage in turnout in elections so long as Donald Trump sits in the White House. In places where there are large pools of untapped Democratic voters, the party is going to win marginal seats as well as some seats that have not been competitive since at least 2006.

That, she says, explains Democratic success in several special elections in districts that Trump carried by wide margins in 2018. Bitcofer adds:

My analysis of special elections since Trump was elected reveals that Democratic Party candidates are over-performing Hillary Clinton’s share of the two-party vote by an average of 7.36 points while Republican Party candidates have under-performed Trump’s vote share by an average of -3.47 for a net improvement advantage for Democrats of 10.83 points.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/16/2018 - 10:47 am.

    Interesting analysis

    My own experience, limited thought it might be to a single individual, supports the point being made here.

    As a certified old person, I grew up “liking Ike” myself, and in past decades, I often – though not always – voted for what is now an extinct political species, the moderate Republican. That is, office-seekers who belonged to the Republican Party, but who, beyond a well-established fiscal conservatism, basically adopted a “live and let live” approach to social issues, and were quite willing to work with legislative and policy colleagues of different (usually Democratic) political persuasion to craft policies that were, in fact, often compromises, but that nonetheless served the public’s interest.

    I still tend to lean left, but, having served around the fringes of municipal politics for quite a few years in unelected and volunteer capacities, I’m not reflexive about my political orientation, and am not opposed to supporting a Republican if there are any left who fit that long-departed “moderate” label. Alas, the moderate Republican seems increasingly to be a hallucination, as the GOP has moved steadily to the right since I became old enough to vote, while their counterparts on the Democratic side have, just as steadily, moved to the left. There’s not much “center” remaining politically, except as a sort of temporary expedient.

    All of which is to say that I find myself sometimes falling into the same sort of intellectual trap as many on the political right do, which is to vote “against” a candidate rather than “for” a candidate. No one is perfect, and I’ve yet to find a politician or political party with which I agree on every single policy point, but more and more, as the GOP moves to the right, I find myself looking more closely at Democratic candidates simply out of fear of what people who like to call themselves “conservative” might impose upon me and my family if they’re given the opportunity. I’m fairly certain, based on the limited sample of “conservative” comments here on MinnPost, that those who fall into that camp find themselves reflexively voting for Republican candidates because of the same sort of fear of what a Democratic legislature or administration might impose upon them.

    That sort of unthinking hostility toward those of differing views doesn’t really serve the notion of “democracy” very well, and in fact, “democracy,” in the form of a government “of and by and for the people,” seems to me unlikely to survive if, like some of those farthest right and farthest left at the moment, we treat our political opponents as if they are, literally, enemies. “Lock Her Up” is a mantra that, instead of being given legitimacy by the campaign of a major party, represents a viewpoint that we used to think was limited to dictatorships. Alas, it is not.

    • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 08/23/2018 - 06:14 am.

      Political positions

      Ray, many of us who consider ourselves progressives feel that the Democratic Party has moved steadily to the right since the Clinton administration. You state that “counterparts on the Democratic side have, just as steadily, moved to the left.” What positions have the Democrats taken since the Clinton years that you feel are leftist?

  2. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 08/16/2018 - 11:15 am.

    This didn’t happen in a vacum

    I love these articles that tell us where we are but not how we got here. There seem to be a lot of them these days. Republicans have understood how fear drives voters for decades. They’ve been using it since the 60’s by implementing what is commonly known as the Southern Strategy. Basically stoking white fear. Johnson knew that Democrats had lost the south when he signed civil rights legislation, he said as much. Then along came St. Ronny Reagan with his nine most feared words and Republicans have been running against Government ever since. What this study proves is that their strategy has worked and its worked to the detriment of this country.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 08/17/2018 - 06:54 am.

      Henk, I totally disagree.

      The reason Trump is President now is the Lefts push to identify politics. After 8 years of Obama fanning the flames of Ferguson (no, there was never a hands up don’t shoot moment), the “evil 1%’ers” (no their success has not hurt you), if you don’t like Obamacare you’re a racist (no, it was simple math), Obama saying “you didn’t build it”, his administration using the IRS to target TEA party groups, the list is long. Trump came in with MAGA and a promise of a better economy with tax cuts, regulations being reduced and a commitment to leveling our trade agreements. That was not a message of division, that was a message of hope.

      • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 08/17/2018 - 11:14 am.


        Can you please provide an example of President Obama fanning the flames of Ferguson? Or the evil 1%ers where he is saying that their success hurt me? Or maybe where if you don’t like Obamacare you’re a racist? Please give those examples otherwise I’ll have to assume that none of the things you’re saying have a basis in reality.

        Also too Donald rode into town on a platform of Lock Her Up, Build the Wall and Drain the Swamp. Maybe some HOPED that Hillary would be lock up, and thought that building a wall was not going to divide any one (Odd because that’s what walls are all about) or that they HOPED that the swamp would be drained but none of that has happened. What has happened is that we are more divided than ever and your man Don stokes that every single day with his tweets.

        Lastly all this started long before we elected a Black President. Read the article, its been going on for decades.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/21/2018 - 12:09 pm.

        Identity Politics

        Republicans have engaged in identity politics of their own. The rise of the evangelical right is identity writ large. We also all knew what color the “strapping young buck” getting welfare was.

        “Trump came in with MAGA and a promise of a better economy with tax cuts, regulations being reduced and a commitment to leveling our trade agreements. That was not a message of division, that was a message of hope.” Trump came in with shouts of “lock her up” and “build that wall.” He told us about the rapists and drug dealers swarming over the southern border. That’s not hope, that’s hatred.

      • Submitted by Mike Davidson on 08/22/2018 - 04:23 pm.

        Nice Try …

        1. Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson on 08/09/2014. Obama was elected on 11/04/2008 and took office on 01/20/2009, so no, Obama did not spend eight years “fanning the flames of Ferguson” as the shooting occurred more than six years into his presidency. Apparently, math is not so simple.
        2. Obama has never, ever said that the 1%ers are evil. He simply said the 1% do not pay their fare share of taxes. That is a fact. Saying it doesn’t demonize the 1%.
        3. Please cite an example of Obama, or any Democrat/liberal/progressive politician saying that you’re a racist if you didn’t like the ACA. That never happened. And no, quotes and “analysis” from talking heads/pundits on cable news do not count as they do not come from politicians.
        4. The IRS didn’t just target Tea Party groups, this has been debunked many times over so please find a new talking point. Liberal groups were targeted as well.
        5. Trump did not come in and create a booming economy with his policies. The economy was already booming long before he entered the White House. You can thank Obama for that. Trump rode in on Obama’s wave. As for the points you brought up – tax cuts (which help only corporations and the rich), reducing regulations, and messing with trade agreements … the last POTUS to do all of those things was George W. Bush. Look where that got us.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/16/2018 - 05:07 pm.

    Who’s in office

    To make things simple–
    When someone you like is in office, you’re likely to vote in support of him.
    When you know more about the person in office than the person that you support, you’re likely to vote against the person in office.
    So, lacking an inspired Presidential candidate so far, Democrats are likely to say that they’re voting against Trump and his lackeys, while hard core Republicans are more likely to vote in favor of candidates who Trump supports.
    This may change as November (both 2018 and 2020) approaches.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/16/2018 - 05:51 pm.

    This article made me wonder, when I react with a gut fear of Trump rally-goers screaming hatred at the press and all Democrats, if I am fearful of just a set of policies or a political ideology that may be damaging to me or my peers or the country in general, or if I am at base, and truly, just fearful for my life. I think there’s a difference. And I think I’m pretty fearful for my life, and yours, in a Trump world.

    Trump is the biggest political threat to the existence of the United States of America, as we have known it, that has ever held the White House and Executive Branch of our government in his hands. People are not paying enough attention to what Trump is actually doing. Is that just a party’s ideology? Or, is it action by one man and his cultish followers who scream violence at the rest of us?

    And the Republican Party does nothing to control Trump: I’m afraid of all of them, too, for that inaction.

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/16/2018 - 07:55 pm.

    It’s sad

    The younger voters of today don’t have the viewpoint of being able to witness or be part of our country when Republicans and Democrats worked together to accomplish the most for all. Now it seems most of the work is to serve those already with the most. If that is all the younger voters know, how to do we change that in a polarized country? America will never accomplish the most for all until we work together again. Congress needs to be swept clean of all those who have stopped working and upholding the oath of office they took when they were elected. The framers did not intend for those in congress to make a lifetime career of it. They knew longevity stifles productivity. Longevity just creates baggage and corruption, witness today’s congress.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/17/2018 - 10:07 am.

    Stubborn but misguided narrative

    I know that the “partisan divide” narrate is extremely popular among journalists, and I have some ideas why that is… but here let’s just observe the fact that it functions to obscure rather than reveal political reality.

    One reason the partisan divide narrative may be so pernicious is that it works to preserve status quo political models, and for the most part, US journalist are reluctant to challenge what they perceive to be status quo models. US journalist typically try to seek out and report from a status quo perspective, they call this practice “objective” journalism.

    Without delving into the fallacies of the “objective” reporting style we can just make some basic and obvious observations that appear to be beyond the grasp of “mainstream” journalists at the moment.

    1) The widespread alienation of the majority of American’s from their political system did indeed begin decades ago. However this had nothing to do with partisanship, either negative or positive. The alienation was always a product of elite leadership that was increasingly disconnected from the populace and unwilling to address issues that the majority of Americans were facing on a daily basis. In short, no matter who won elections the wealthy got tax cuts while everyone got endless debate about everything from global warming to education.

    2) The “partisan” model ignores the fact that when centrist/moderate neoliberals captured the Democratic Party in the 80s they created a more extreme verson of duopoly that represented the elite at the expense of everyone else. It wasn’t about Democrats vs. Republicans, it was about up vs. down with both parties representing “up”, campaign rhetoric not-withstanding. Again, the wealthy got concrete legislation while everyone else got endless debate about the intractable nature of all of our problems. Partisanship simply provided cover for negligence, and both Parties utilized it. No matter who got elected 90% of all the new wealth, i.e. increase in real GDP, went to the top 10% beginning with Reagan’s tax cuts. Meanwhile perfectly workable and relatively simple solutions for the manufactured “crises” facing everything from health care to Social Security sat on the shelf untouched by either party… until the 2016 Democratic Primary contest between Clinton and Sanders.

    3) Low voter participation is predictable, maybe even inevitable, in a political environment that repeatedly fails to deliver results for the vast majority of voters. This has nothing to do with partisanship, it’s simply common sense.

    4) The old model of partisan “divide” is defunct because to the extent that it EVER existed, alienated voters are no longer divided among the two Parties. The largest bloc of voters in the US now classify themselves as independents. Since neither Party has the votes to win elections on their own, it’s incoherent to assume that one party is nullifying the other. The partisan divide narrative obscures the fact that we’re not really divided. American’s aren’t divided per se, rather a minority Trumpian extremists have taken power. For some reason the media can’t make itself comfortable with this fact so they keep promoting the partisan divide narrative as if the electorate is actually split in half.

    Part of this narrative preservation is simply an product of centrism that constantly seeks to normalize radical right extremism in order to negotiate with it. Centrism doesn’t want to acknowledge the fact that extremists have taken power because: A) That would mean centrism has led to the collapse of the “center”, and: B) The impulse to meet “extremist” somewhere in the middle between were “we” are, and where they are… pushes us closer to the extreme rather than back to the “middle”. It’s always been an incoherent political model.

    While negative partisanship “could” be used to explain voter behavior, it’s a poor model based on defunct assumptions. What we’re REALLY seeing is a surge of progressive and popular policies pushing their way into the Democratic platform (in the face of stiff resistance) at a time when a clear majority of voters are rejecting Trump and the Republican Party he’s leading. It’s more of a matter of voters responding the possibility of competent and responsive leadership for the first time in decades. The problem with accepting THAT narrative is you have to admit that neither party has delivered responsive or competent leadership in decades. So we keep pretending that this is a face-off between the two parties rather than a face-off between elite and everyone else.

  7. Submitted by Kathleen Castrovinci on 08/19/2018 - 10:25 am.

    Donald Trump is not a moral man…..

    During the 2nd century A.D., Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, wrote in Meditations, the four chief virtues of a good leader…..Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. What we have in Donald Trump is a man who possesses NONE of these virtues. Trump lacks empathy, compassion, intellectual curiosity, nor respects the office he holds.

    A leader who does not display Wisdom before he speaks or tweets. A leader who does not practice Fortitude in studying the history of this country or of the world before he attacks those who dare challenge him on the facts. A leader who does not offer Justice to those who need it or pardons those who violated it with unlawful intent. A leader whose vitriolic Temperance towards those he views to beneath him in intellect, economic status, upbringing, etc., shows no signs of abating.

    Welcome to the era of Trump. At least the wretched Commodus was somewhat a moral man when he succeeded his father, Marcus Aurelius, but that is not saying much in comparison to Donald Trump.

    This is where this country is going. Down the amoral abyss.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 08/20/2018 - 12:38 am.

      Dives aut iniquus est, aut iniqui haeres.

      Nemo autem regere potest nisi qui et regi.

      Corruptio optimi pessima est.

      O tempora! Ο mores!

      Gratias mundo Telam Totius.

      The rich man or inequitable, or of a wicked life of an heir.

      No one can govern without also being ruled.

      Corruption of the best is the worst.

      What times! Ο behavior!

      Thanks World Wide Web.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 08/21/2018 - 08:44 am.

    Suspect the article has a fair amount of validity

    Was conversing with an in-law awhile back and he was explaining how he supported death taxes, basically saying everyone should make their own way in the world and not be granted forever wealth. So how does this guy vote? Not left! Had another conversation with a different in law on what looks to be the perfect society, answer was something resembling Denmark, how does this guy vote? Not left! Seems, that some folks struggle to connect the dots between their goals, ideas, and their votes. But they sure do hate, the Clinton’s, & Obama, but can’t explain why?

    • Submitted by Jeffrey Brenner on 08/21/2018 - 10:01 am.


      It is puzzling why some people have expressed hate for Democrats, but can’t give concrete reasons for their hatred.
      It is sad that politics in this country has been lowered to the level of sports. My team good -your team bad. It’s no wonder that our discourse often resembles two drunks arguing in the bar after the game.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/21/2018 - 10:49 am.


      I’ve never spoken to anyone who couldn’t explain why they hate Democrats or Clinton or Obama. Their reasons may be spurious… but they definitely have their reasons.

      While “hate” may be a strong word, I don’t know any liberals or progressives who can’t give you concrete reasons for opposing and not voting for Republicans.

      I would say that anyone who’s not familiar with these reasons isn’t confused, they’re just not paying attention.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/22/2018 - 10:12 am.

        For decades, I have noticed that low information voters vote, it at all, either on the basis of how much they “like” the individual candidate’s personality or on the basis of their favorite hot button issue.

        Guns and abortion are two such issues.

        Out in Oregon, Peter DeFazio keeps winning a majority-conservative district despite being about as close to Bernie Sanders as you can get ideologically. The reason? He always votes against gun control. In our own state, James Oberstar won the the largely Roman Catholic Iron Range for term after term, despite being on the left side otherwise, due to his opposition to abortion.

        Back in the 1980s in Oregon, I had women friends who voted for Bob Packwood, despite his being chairman of the Senate Finance Committee during the formulation of Reagan’s major tax bill, the bill that began the process of lowering taxes for the rich and taking away benefits for the middle class, simply because Packwood was pro-choice. “As if Les Aucoin (the Democratic candidate( isn’t?” I would say, to no avail. I resisted saying, “I told you so” after Packwood’s lecherous ways were revealed.

        But on the whole, it is a terrible indictment of our system that half of Americans nationwide don’t bother to vote. Some are just plain ignorant and apathetic, but others have concluded that neither party has anything to offer them and that their lives don’t improve no matter who is in office.

Leave a Reply