In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement skyrocketed. By early June, 53 percent of registered voters said they supported the movement, compared with just 28 percent who said they opposed it, according to polling by Civiqs. In particular, white Democratic support of the movement increased from about 80 percent to 90 percent, and there were both more white independents expressing support for BLM and fewer expressing opposition.
At about the same time, Joe Biden led President Trump by about 6 to 7 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s average of national polls.
But between that time and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday (we have barely any new polling since Blake’s shooting), Black Lives Matter’s surge in popularity ended: About 49 percent of registered voters said they supported the movement, compared with around 38 percent in opposition — similar to BLM’s net approval before Floyd’s death.1 That drop in popularity has largely been driven by increased opposition among white Republicans (80 percent of whom oppose the movement, higher than before Floyd’s death) and white independents (who now support BLM at similar levels as before Floyd’s death).
And at the moment, Biden leads Trump by just over 8 points in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.
Why does all of this polling data matter?
Because it suggests that Biden’s electoral prospects and the popularity of Black Lives Matter are not closely linked — at least not so far. Some political analysts have suggested that the decline in support for Black Lives Matter and the increased focus from both Republicans and the media on riots that have accompanied some of the protests of police violence against Black people might boost Trump and hurt Biden. Republicans certainly seem to think so — numerous speakers at the Republican National Convention have condemned the rioting and implied that state and local Democratic leaders are being too lenient toward the protesters, who are generally associated with Black Lives Matter. “Law and order,” meanwhile, was a heavy theme in Vice President Mike Pence’s address at the convention on Wednesday night, including the line, “The hard truth is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
These dynamics could hurt Biden. It’s hard to predict the future. But be wary of any confident arguments that they will hurt him, since the popularity of Black Lives Matter dipped weeks ago but Biden’s did not. In fact, there are a few fairly logical reasons that would explain why BLM’s support has gone down that don’t really have anything to do with Biden and that wouldn’t affect his electoral prospects:
- The surge in support for BLM came in the wake of constant media coverage of Floyd’s death, which was recorded on video and depicted hard-to-defend behavior from the police. It’s not surprising that those numbers gradually came back to earth once media coverage of Floyd and the resulting protests became less pervasive.
- Second, BLM is a social-activist movement, not an electoral or political organization. BLM activists aren’t conducting endless polling and trying to maximize public support, and they generally keep some distance from party politics. In fact, in the weeks after Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter activists started pushing controversial ideas, such as defunding the police, and controversial tactics, such as blocking traffic when they were protesting. I doubt it shocked BLM activists that defunding the police, in particular, was not popular. And I would assume that at least some of the dip in BLM’s popularity among white Republicans and white independents stemmed from its embrace of cutting police funding, in addition to the rioting.
- Finally, as BLM started taking more controversial stands — particularly defunding the police — Republican politicians started attacking those positions. Voters often follow cues from the elites in their party, so it’s not surprising that BLM has grown more unpopular with Republicans and some independents.
Biden, in contrast, has repeatedly condemned rioting and also repeatedly said that he opposes defunding the police. So it would make sense that voters don’t link his views to BLM.
In fact, there was speculation at the start of the Floyd protests that they would boost Trump and hurt Biden — and that was not borne out. An emphasis on “law and order” helped the Republicans win the 1968 presidential election, and both parties embraced tough-on-crime, tough-on-Black-people approaches to win elections in the 1980s and 1990s. But the case that Trump won the 2016 election largely because of identity and racial issues has perhaps been overstated by the media in the years since. And the evidence — at least so far — suggests that the electorate in 2020 may not be responding to issues around race and policing in the way it did in those earlier eras. That might be because of the growing number of non-white and college-educated voters, who tend to have more liberal views on these issues. It might be because Americans are more uncomfortable with Trump’s approach to race than Biden’s, or because of the increased media focus on the more radical racial views of white people, such as the Trump-supporting teenager who shot three protesters, killing two, in Kenosha on Tuesday.
But let’s say we wake up in a week and Biden’s lead in national polls is down to 4 or 5 percentage points. Let’s say Trump has even pulled ahead of Biden in our polling averages in Wisconsin and Florida. And let’s say we get a bunch of new polls in the wake of Blake’s shooting that show public opinion firmly opposed to the rioting. Could we conclude that there is an anti-BLM backlash helping Trump?
Maybe, but it would be hard to say for sure. First, a Trump surge in the polls might simply be a traditional “convention bounce” from the Republican National Convention, which has taken place amid the unrest in Kenosha.
Second, it would be a bit odd (and perhaps disingenuous) for voters to switch from Biden to Trump, or from undecided to Trump, because of riots that Biden has condemned. Such voters might be people who traditionally vote Republican, backed Trump in 2016 and have been on the fence this year but are looking for a rationale to stick with their party and support Trump again.
Third, it would be hard to unpack which voters are annoyed by the riots specifically, as opposed to the months of protests against racial injustice, Black athletes striking and other actions that aren’t rioting but still might offend people who are more broadly wary of pushes for racial equality made by Black Americans. We should be skeptical of claims that Americans overall will support Black people’s demands for equality if only they made those demands in the manner that America’s white majority prefers — history suggests that even peaceful tactics like kneeling can generate a ton of backlash. (Remember that the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. were both fairly unpopular in the 1960s.) And we should acknowledge what the past five decades of American electoral history has shown: Being the political party aligned with Black people seems very well correlated with the plurality of white people opposing that party. It might be the case that the best thing electorally for the Democratic Party would be for Black Lives Matter activists to keep quiet until February, but BLM activists might not want to delay their push for racial justice to focus on Trump’s defeat.
All that said, there could be a bloc of voters who support the protests and currently back Biden but who will shift to Trump because of the riots. We can’t rule out that group emerging. But, crucially, that group has not emerged yet, despite plenty of opportunity. And based on what we’ve seen in June, July and August of this year, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical that such a group will emerge. In terms of racial issues, America is much different from how it was in 1968 or 1988 — and maybe even in 2016.
Geoffrey Skelley contributed analysis to this article.