Sen. Mitch McConnell and many political pundits claim that voters will have to choose a “lesser of two evils” in this election. That cliché is based on how high Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s unfavorable ratings are compared with previous candidates’. But favorable ratings don’t always tell us everything, and there are strong signs that voters don’t consider Clinton to be less tolerable than past candidates. (Trump on the other hand …)
A simpler method for determining positive or negative support is to ask people whether their vote is affirmatively for one candidate or in protest against the other. The latest ABC News survey reveals that, in fact, Clinton’s voters feel about as positively about their candidate as any candidate’s supporters have felt about their own preferred candidate since 1980. Trump voters are less enthusiastic about him: Since 1980, no group of supporters has been less affirmative in its support for its candidate.
Right now, 56 percent of Clinton voters say they are mainly for her compared with just 42 percent of the same voters who say they are voting against Trump. This 56 percent is the highest it’s been all year in the ABC News poll, and it’s been steadily climbing for Clinton since July. In the same survey, only 41 percent of Trump supporters say they are voting for him, while 54 percent say they are mostly voting against Clinton. Those numbers are about the same as they’ve been all year.
That 56 percent of Clinton’s voters are affirmatively supporting her may not seem like a lot, but it’s about average for a presidential candidate. That’s clear from the chart below, which plots the final live-interview poll to ask this type of question in every election since 1980.1
Sometimes voters really like the person they are voting for. President Obama won in 2008 and 2012 with at least 80 percent of his backers saying their support was mostly because they liked him. But that’s uncommon. George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992 were elected when 56 percent and 57 percent respectively of their backers said they were voting for the candidate. And while 1980’s latest poll that asked this question was taken before Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the two candidates’ only debate, only half of Reagan’s backers said they were voting mainly in support of their candidate.
The most interesting thing about these numbers is how few of Trump’s supporters are his fans. No candidate since 1980 has had a lower percentage of voters say they plan to cast a vote for their candidate. That includes candidates whose campaigns were viewed as disastrous, including Jimmy Carter in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996. (The Republican party basically gave up on Dole in the final month of the 1996 election.)
For Clinton, having a majority of supporters who are voting affirmatively for her could be important both on Nov. 8 and afterward, assuming she becomes president. Although the relationship is far from perfect, in eight of the nine elections since 1980, the candidate whose backers were more likely to say they were casting an affirmative vote ultimately won. That’s good news for Hillary Clinton.