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Most Americans do not feel represented by Democrats or Republicans – survey


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The Guardian  /  October 25, 2016

Poll finds Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump continue to face historically low favourability ratings, while pessimism about the country’s direction has grown

As they go to the polls in a historic presidential election, more than six in 10 Americans say neither major political party represents their views any longer, a survey has found.

Dissatisfaction with both Democrats and Republicans has risen sharply since 1990, when less than half held that neither reflected their opinions, according to research by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

The seventh annual 2016 American Values Survey was carried out throughout September among a random sample of 2,010 adults in all 50 states.

Both party establishments have been rattled by the outsider challenges of Donald Trump, who was successful in winning his party’s nomination, and Bernie Sanders, who was not. In a year that seems ripe for third-party candidates, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Jill Stein of the Green party are seeking to capitalise but have fallen back in the polls in recent weeks.

Sixty-one per cent of survey respondents say neither political party reflects their opinions today, while 38% disagree. Nearly eight in 10 (77%) independents and a majority (54%) of Republicans took this position, while less than half (46%) of Democrats agree. There was virtually no variation across class or race.

Both Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican standard bearer Trump continue to suffer historically low favourability ratings, with less than half of the public viewing each candidate positively (41% v 33%). Clinton is viewed less favourably than the Democratic party (49%), but Trump’s low rating is more consistent with the Republican party’s own favourability (36%).

The discontent with parties and candidates extends to the electoral process itself, which Trump claims is rigged against him. Less than half the public (43%) say they have a great deal of confidence that their vote will be counted accurately, while 38% have some confidence and 17% have hardly any confidence.

Party affiliation shapes perception. About two in three Republicans believe voter fraud is a bigger problem than voter disenfranchisement, whereas two in three Democrats say eligible voters being denied access is the greater concern. Studies have found cases of voter fraud to be minuscule.

The PRRI found that pessimism about the direction of the US is significantly higher today (74%) than it was at this time during the 2012 presidential race, when 57% of the public said the country was on the wrong track.

Indeed, there is hankering, at least on one side of the aisle, for a perceived golden age. The 1950s might have been the decade of Soviets launching Sputnik, of anti-communist witch-hunts and of persistent racial segregation, but 72% of Trump’s likely voters say American culture and way of life has changed for the worse since then. Some 70% of Clinton’s supporters say things have changed for the better.

Robert Jones, chief executive of PRRI, said: “This election has become a referendum on competing visions of America’s future. Donald Trump supporters are nostalgic for the 1950s, an era when white Christians in particular had more political and cultural power in the country, while Hillary Clinton supporters are leaning into – and even celebrating – the big cultural transformations the country has experienced over the last few decades.”

A majority (56%) of white Americans – including three in four (74%) of white evangelical Protestants – say American society has changed for the worse since the 1950s, while roughly six in 10 of black (62%) and Hispanic (57%) Americans say it has improved.

Critics have described Trump as an authoritarian figure who poses a fundamental threat to democracy. In a hint of what might have been possible if he had avoided numerous scandals and feuds during his campaign, the research found that 46% of people, including 55% of Republicans, believe the US needs a leader willing to break some rules in order to set things right.

There was a modest racial divide on the appeal of a strongman but a clear class divide. A majority (55%) of white working class Americans endorsed the idea whereas less than a third (29%) of those with college degrees agreed.

Jones told an audience at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington on Tuesday: “It fits very well with this portrait of Americans who see a very non-responsive political system to their situation. So when you feel parties aren’t attuned to you, government’s not attuned to you, nobody’s got your back, this kind of sentiment is, I think, what you get.

“If you get a strong leader who’s coming in to shake things up – someone who’s said, ‘I’m the guy. Only I can solve this problem’ – I think it’s appealing to this kind of sentiment. It’s people who feel like the system’s largely failed them. They don’t see any paths working within the current channels to change things.”

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, added: “It gets to the importance of listening. When people feel excluded from the normal process of society, they will endorse extreme measures in order to ensure they get part of that society. There is a segment that we don’t often come into contact with except through data that very much feels that way and they find Trump’s authoritarian demeanour reassuring rather than frightening.”

Olsen argued it is incumbent on the election victors to listen to the views of people who think differently from them, comparing the situation with Brexit. “If the answer to our future is lean in without listening, we will eventually see a violent revolt that will shock everyone, in the way that [the leave vote] shocked Britain.”

People name terrorism as the most important issue and are closely divided on the benefits of free trade. Some 58% oppose building a wall along the Mexican border, while 41% are in favour.

Trump’s campaign was rocked earlier this month by the release of a 2005 video in which he boasted about sexually assaulting women. But the PRRI’s findings suggest its impact on the electorate might be less than supposed. Some 61% of people say an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life. This was a sharp increase from 44% in 2011.

Most strikingly, 72% of white evangelical Protestants agree, up from just 30% in 2011. Jones said: “White evangelicals have gone from the least likely group to agree with this statement to the most likely group to agree with this statement.”

Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow and research coordinator at the American Enterprise Institute, said allegiance trumps character for many voters. “We saw the same thing in the 1990s, when for decades, feminists had told us that the personal was the political, and all of a sudden during the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, everything flipped and the personal was no longer the political. I think party was more important than the issue.”

Seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants say they will vote for Trump, while Clinton has a healthy lead among Catholics. She is tied with Trump among white Catholics.

More than a third (35%) of Democrats cite Barack Obama as their favourite president, ahead of John F Kennedy (21%), Bill Clinton (20%) and Franklin D Roosevelt (15%). Nearly seven in 10 (69%) Republicans name Ronald Reagan as their favourite occupant of the White House, with George W Bush second on 12%.

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