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

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.

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

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.)

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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:

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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.

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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.