Four years ago, when President Trump was the Republican nominee, he won over voters who didn’t like him or his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, which gave him a boost in a general election that featured the two most disliked major-party nominees in history.
According to exit polls, 18 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of both Trump and Clinton, but when they cast their ballots, they broke 47 percent to 30 percent in favor of Trump. The president’s advantage among these voters was pivotal, too. Trump carried these voters by between 21 and 37 percentage points in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the three states that put him over the top in the Electoral College.
But now, in 2020, Trump may have lost his edge among the “haters” — that is, the voters who hold an unfavorable view of both presidential candidates. Two recent national surveys found that former Vice President Joe Biden has a big lead over Trump among those who have unfavorable views of them both. An April survey from NBC News/Wall Street Journal put Biden ahead of Trump 60 percent to 10 percent, and an early May survey from Morning Consult gave Biden a lead of 46 percent to 14 percent.
However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when talking about the “hater” vote. First, this voting bloc is probably not as big as it was in 2016. According to the RealClearPolitics average of favorability polls, the two nominees aren’t as disliked this time around. As you can see in the table below, the net favorability (the favorable rating minus the unfavorable rating) for both Trump and Biden is around 10 points higher than the figures for Trump and Clinton in November 2016.
The 2020 candidates are better liked … for now
Presidential candidates’ average favorable and unfavorable ratings the day before the 2016 election versus May 27, 2020
|Republican favorability||Democratic favorability|
It’s possible that Biden’s and Trump’s favorability will deteriorate the closer we get to Election Day, but there’s also evidence that Trump really has made gains since 2016, thanks to his improved position among Republicans. For example, take the last poll from The Economist/YouGov before the 2016 election and its most recent 2020 survey: In November 2016, 75 percent of Republicans said they had a favorable impression of Trump, whereas in the latest iteration of the poll, 84 percent of Republicans said they had a favorable view of him. Other polls show a similar sort of increase. We know less about Biden’s net favorability and how it might change, but it is higher than Clinton’s. And, based on the polling we have so far, Biden’s net favorability among Democrats is comparable to Clinton’s, although his standing among independents is notably better (though still negative).
Second, the makeup of the hater vote likely differs from that of 2016. With Trump’s higher favorability among Republicans, fewer Republican-leaning voters are likely to fall into this group; instead, there’s probably a larger share of voters who lean Democratic than in 2016. For instance, it’s possible that a disproportionate share of left-leaning voters who backed a Biden rival in the Democratic presidential primary, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, falls in this group. The same could be said for independents who don’t like either candidate. The question is whether these haters will disproportionately vote for one candidate, as they did in 2016.
FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Questions about Biden and Trump’s bases
It’s possible that these voters will break for Biden, as the NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Morning Consult polls suggest, because they view the election as a referendum on Trump. Yet it’s also possible that these voters will be more divided on whom they back by Election Day — 41 percent said they were still undecided or had no opinion in the Morning Consult poll, and 30 percent didn’t back Biden or Trump in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The share of haters in the electorate could grow or shrink in the coming months, too. In fact, we already have one poll from Monmouth University released earlier this month that suggests the percentage of voters who don’t like either candidate might be as large as (or larger than) what we saw in 2016. (Monmouth put the share at nearly a quarter of registered voters; the share in the 2016 exit polls was 18 percent.) Granted, this is only one poll, but any group that makes up 15 to 25 percent of the electorate could have a significant effect on the election.
It’s also possible that Trump’s and Biden’s net favorability ratings change. In 2016, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s net favorability got a slight boost after the Democratic convention in late July, likely because some Democrats came home to roost. So if some Democrats with unfavorable views of Biden warm up to him at the convention this August, that could reduce the share of voters who dislike both candidates (as most Democrats have an unfavorable impression of Trump). Conversely, Trump’s ratings could slide further if the country can’t get out of a coronavirus-induced economic tailspin. This scenario could sour even a few Republicans on Trump and increase the share of voters who don’t like both candidates (as most Republicans have an unfavorable view of Biden).
But, as was the case in 2016, some voters may ultimately feel that the 2020 election boils down to a choice between the lesser of two evils. We’ll be keeping an eye on just how many voters view both candidates unfavorably and what their preferences are.