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Why Trump Is Likely To Keep Talking About The NFL Protests

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

Three polls released since the NFL announced a new policy that effectively bans players from kneeling during the national anthem1 suggest the league’s decision is broadly in line with public opinion — but with some important nuances.

The polls — one from Yahoo News and YouGov, one from HuffPost and YouGov and one from Morning Consult — make a few things clear …

A plurality of Americans don’t like the national anthem protests: Forty-eight percent of Americans support the NFL’s new policy, compared to 32 percent who oppose it, according to the Yahoo News/YouGov survey, released last Friday.2 Twenty percent said they had no opinion. In the HuffPost/YouGov poll released this week, 49 percent of Americans said that they feel it is “inappropriate” for players to kneel during the national anthem, compared to 35 percent who feel it is appropriate. Sixteen percent were not sure. Morning Consult found similar numbers.

Just as in previous polls on this issue, there are huge racial and partisan divides. According to the HuffPost/YouGov poll, most black people (66 percent) and Democrats (62 percent) think that kneeling is appropriate, while most white people (60 percent) and Republicans (87 percent) think it is inappropriate. But opinions among these groups aren’t uniform: 29 percent of black people back the new NFL policy (per Yahoo/YouGov), 34 percent of black people either feel kneeling is inappropriate or aren’t sure how they feel about the issue (per HuffPost/YouGov) and 23 percent of Democrats think kneeling is inappropriate (again per HuffPost). In contrast, just 8 percent of Republicans think it is appropriate.

In other words, very few Republicans support kneeling, while a significant bloc of black people and Democrats oppose kneeling. That asymmetry is basically what explains the NFL policy’s net positive numbers overall.

There’s a lot going on in these questions, which makes interpreting them tricky: Patriotism. Free speech. Race. Politics. President Trump. There are a lot hot-button issues that intersect in the NFL protests. As a result, slightly different questions can yield very different results.

For example, HuffPost/YouGov found a clear plurarily of people opposed to players kneeling, but the poll also asked, “Do you think NFL teams should or should not be fined if their players kneel in protest during the national anthem?” Forty-one percent of Americans support fining the teams, but slightly more (44 percent) oppose that idea. This may tell us that people don’t want teams fined, because they like teams (or at least their local one). Or perhaps the specter of fines rubs Americans the wrong way, as the country is strongly predisposed in favor of free speech. Either way, there appears to be a difference between how Americans feel about seeing players protest on the field versus how they feel about the league imposing a penalty for those protests — although the NFL might argue that without the penalty, the protests would continue.

This is a win for Trump: Not only did President Trump repeatedly bashed NFL players for kneeling, but Vice President Mike Pence dramatically left an NFL game in Indianapolis last year after seeing a few players kneeling. The NFL’s new policy is a win for Trump — and on a field that matters, even though it’s not a policy or electoral victory. Thirty-seven percent of Americans say football is their favorite sport to watch, according to a Gallup poll released in January, putting it at the top of American sports — far ahead of basketball (11 percent) and baseball (9 percent.) The NFL is a big part of U.S. culture, in other words, and Trump decided that the protests were an issue on which he as president should intervene. Trump rallied his supporters and pushed the NFL owners to take action, and now this policy is fairly popular, unlike many of Trump’s other stances.

In a sign of where the politics are on this issue, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, asked about the new NFL policy last week, said, “I love the national anthem. I love the flag. And I love the First Amendment, and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Finally, it’s not surprising that the national anthem protests are unpopular: As we wrote last year, protests are often unpopular. (If the majority of people supported a position, you likely wouldn’t need to protest in the first place.) About 60 percent of Americans disliked the “sit-ins” conducted by civil rights protesters and the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s. King himself is revered now, but 63 percent of Americans viewed him unfavorably in a 1966 Gallup survey, compared to 33 percent who had favorable views. Vietnam War protests were also unpopular, as were those against the Iraq War more than three decades later.

In any case, one goal of most protests is to change public opinion (as eventually happened with the issues above). And the NFL protests are likely to remain part of the national political debate. Will public opinion change? It’s hard to say, and it depends. Will some players continue to protest, either by staying in the locker room during the national anthem or by kneeling on the field, leading to their teams getting fined? And will Trump keep talking about this issue, either to attack the players who are protesting, or — if few players are kneeling — to remind Americans that all NFL players are standing during the anthem in part because of him?

If Trump inserts himself further into this issue, I think that will drive up opposition to the new national anthem policy among black people (they strongly oppose the president) and white Democrats (they are moving left on racial and cultural issues). At the same time, polls suggest the national anthem is a winning issue for the president overall — his stance, I assume, will remain very popular with Republicans and perhaps be shared by the plurality of voters overall.

So stay tuned. The NFL season starts in September, just as Americans gear up for the midterm elections. And a national debate over the anthem and kneeling could be exactly what Trump wants around that time.

Other polling nuggets

  • We’ve updated FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings for the first time since the 2016 primary elections! Despite what you may have heard, presidential polls were as accurate in 2016 as they’ve been on average since 1972. See Nate’s analysis of polls overall and of the best and worst pollsters individually.
  • 81 percent of Americans said they would be more likely to buy the a food or beverage if the word “fresh” is on the label, according to a new Morning Consult poll. Forty-six percent said they’d be more likely to buy food labeled “Non-GMO,” 26 percent felt that way for foods labeled “Diet” and only 17 percent were more likely to go for foods that said “Vegan.”
  • Republican Ted Cruz is leading Democratic Challenger Beto O’Rourke in Texas’s U.S. Senate race 50 to 39 percent, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. That same poll had the two almost tied in April.
  • According to a YouGov poll, 66 percent of Americans still believe that Donald Trump will change his mind and agree to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un despite the president’s recent letter indicating his plans to withdraw.
  • In a SurveyMonkey poll, 30 percent of Americans identified race as the biggest issue that divides the country today. Twenty-three percent said partisanship, 21 percent said ideology, 11 percent said class, 6 percent said religion and only 2 percent said gender.
  • Just before new European data privacy laws went into effect, 63 percent of Americans told Morning Consult that they would not be willing to give a company access to their personal data in exchange for being able to use the service for free. That number dropped to just under half for people between the ages of 18 and 29.
  • About a quarter of Americans and almost 40 percent of those ages 18-29 are “almost constantly” online according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.
  • Another Pew survey found that 51 percent of Americans believe the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country. That’s down from 56 percent in February of 2017. The decline was more notable among Republicans, whose support for accepting refugees dropped from 35 percent last year to 26 percent this year.
  • Two out of three adults have seen a Star Wars3 movie according to an SSRS poll conducted in April. Of those who had seen one or more of the movies, 26 percent said Han Solo was their favorite character, followed by 19 percent for Luke Skywalker and 13 percent for Chewbacca.
  • Pew conducted a survey of almost 25,000 adults across 15 countries in Western Europe. The poll found that while most Christian respondents did not regularly attend church, their views still differed significantly from those of religiously unaffiliated people on many issues.

Trump approval

The president’s approval rating is 41.6 percent and his disapproval is 52.9 percent, fairly similar to this time last month (41-53.)

Generic ballot

Forty-six percent of voters would back a Democratic candidate for the House, compared to 40.1 percent who would back a Republican, according to our tracking of generic congressional ballot polls. That 6 percentage-point advantage is smaller than a month ago, when Democrats had a 47-39 advantage. Our staff discussed the Democrats’ shrinking lead on a podcast this week.


  1. According to the new policy, players on the field must stand for the anthem or their teams will be fined. Players can opt to remain in the locker room during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Kneeling during the song was a demonstration by some players in response to what they view as discrimination against people of color by U.S. institutions, particularly the police.

  2. Two days after the NFL’S new policy was announced.

  3. Disney, which owns the Star Wars franchise, also owns FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.