What Americans Think About Political Violence
Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
Last week, a man broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and violently attacked her husband, Paul. While Pelosi’s husband is expected to make a full recovery, and details are still emerging about the attack, it was a brutal realization of the increase in threats of violence against lawmakers and their families in recent years. And most disturbingly, recent polling shows that some Americans say political violence is sometimes justified.
Polls in recent months have gauged Americans’ views on political violence in a few different ways, but they almost always capture some segment of the population that deems political violence acceptable. When asked whether the use of force or violence was justified “to advance an important political objective,” 1 in 5 Americans said it was, at least sometimes, according to a survey from researchers at the University of California, Davis, conducted in May and June. And in a Reuters/Ipsos poll from September, 17 percent of Americans somewhat or strongly agreed that political violence against those they disagreed with was acceptable, with slightly more Democrats agreeing with the statement than Republicans or independents. However, just a small fraction of registered voters said taking up arms or a civil war was necessary to fix our democracy in a recent New York Times/Siena poll.
As striking as some of those results are, some research suggests Americans’ true views are much more passive. Some of these responses can be chalked up to respondents not paying close enough attention, vaguely worded questions or both, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March. The study’s authors found that, when engaged with the survey and presented with specific examples of political violence, between 89 and 100 percent of respondents wanted a suspect in a politically motivated violent crime charged.
Regardless, the reality is that threats of political violence are on the rise, and it’s making Americans concerned. When asked whether they were “concerned that extremists will commit acts of violence after the election if they are unhappy with the election outcome,” 64 percent of Americans said they somewhat or strongly agreed, in a Reuters/Ipsos poll fielded in October. Similarly, 48 percent of Americans said they were very or somewhat concerned about the possibility of violence associated with the 2022 midterms, according to a UMass/YouGov poll conducted in October. And Black Americans are much more likely than white or Hispanic Americans to expect “displays of violence” related to the midterms, according to a Grid-Harris poll, also from October. When asked whether they thought election results would spark displays of violence in their area, 40 percent of Black Americans said it was very or somewhat likely, compared to 23 percent of white Americans and 36 percent of Hispanic Americans.
Yet once again, the sentiments captured in polling don’t necessarily translate to reality. In a recent YouGov/Economist poll, a majority of Americans (51 percent) said they thought it’s very or somewhat likely that there will be violence at polling places this election, but only 30 percent were concerned about it. And in that New York Times/Siena poll, 71 percent of voters said democracy was at risk in America, but only 7 percent said it was the most important problem facing the country.
Rather than embracing political violence as acceptable, Americans are more likely to find ways to downplay the threat. In response to the attack on Pelosi this week, some Republicans and right-wing figures have been spreading conspiracy theories that the attack was actually the result of a lovers quarrel, a baseless reframing that disregards the possibility that the violence was politically motivated.
The broader reality of political violence in the U.S. is much more complex than a single poll question can capture. As we’ve reported before, political polarization is leading more Americans to become distrustful, spiteful and even hateful of those who have different political views from them, creating a dangerous environment for democracy and those who would be willing to use violence to dismantle it. The attack last week is a stark reminder that it only takes a single person taking these ideas to the extreme to cause real damage, let alone the thousands we saw on Jan. 6.
Other polling bites
- In the run-up to Election Day, the economy continues to be the most pressing political concern for Americans, according to an Oct. 14-18 poll from Data for Progress. Forty-five percent of likely voters (a plurality) named inflation as one of the top three issues congressional candidates should focus on, while 30 percent said jobs and the economy. Meanwhile, voters were split on which party would be better equipped to address such concerns. While both Republican and Democratic likely voters had more faith in their respective parties, a larger share of independents leaned to the right, with 46 percent saying Republicans would be better equipped to tackle economic issues and inflation.
- A recent YouGov survey conducted for Vice News found that 23 percent of Republicans thought white supremacy extremism is a major problem in the U.S., while 37 percent considered it a minor one. Still, Democrats were far more likely to regard white supremacy extremism as a major (73 percent) or minor (20 percent) issue.
- Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has elicited a partisan response. A CivicScience poll conducted Oct. 28 found that close to half of Republicans (43 percent) said they’ll be more likely to use the platform under Musk’s ownership, while a similar share of Democrats (40 percent) said they’d be less likely to use it. Independents were split, with 25 percent saying they’d be more likely to use Twitter, versus 27 percent who reported they’d be less inclined. Meanwhile some just need more time: Sixteen percent said they’ll wait to see what changes Musk makes over the next few months before deciding their Twitter usage.
- For many Americans, the decision to use Twitter may hinge around whether the platform lifts its ban on former President Donald Trump’s account, although Americans are split on the issue. Forty-two percent of Americans support allowing the former President to return to Twitter, but an equal share says the opposite, according to a YouGov poll conducted Monday.
- Forty-five percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should be a “Christian Nation,” according to a recent Pew Research Center study. And while 60 percent also said that the founding fathers originally intended for the country to be a “Christian Nation,” just 33 percent of Americans said it is currently one. Meanwhile, only 15 percent of Americans think that Supreme Court justices should factor their own religious views into decisions of major cases.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 42.2 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 53.2 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11 points). At this time last week, 42.3 percent approved and 53 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -10.7 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 42.1 percent and a disapproval rating of 51.9 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.8 points.
In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,2 Republicans currently lead Democrats by 1.3 points (46.5 percent to 45.2 percent). A week ago, Republicans led by 0.6 points (45.6 percent to 45 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 1.2 points (45.4 percent to 44.2 percent).