Like 2020, voters view 2024 through the lens of Trump

The Republican Party has put forward a candidate for president 42 times in American history. About one out of every 13 times it has done so, it has or will have nominated Donald Trump. Americans under the age of 11 have never experienced a Republican presidential nominee who wasn’t Donald Trump.

Despite his party’s dedication to his candidacy, Trump has never won more votes in the general election. He won the presidency in 2016 by virtue of the distribution of electoral votes and lost in 2020 largely because so many voters wanted to express displeasure with his presidency.

The third time around, this November, Trump is in an unusual position: running even or ahead of his opponent — and benefiting from broad hostility to or apathy about the Democratic incumbent. The question, new polling reinforces, is whether enough Americans still dislike him enough to block his return to the White House.

That polling conducted by YouGov for CBS News asked Americans to explain how and why they had reached a decision about their presidential vote. What the poll found was that the race is even, with a one-point difference between Trump and President Biden both nationally and in swing states. But they also found a wide disparity in why Americans back each of those candidates.

Respondents were asked to decide what best explained their planned vote: enthusiasm for the candidate, loyalty to the candidate’s party or hostility to the other major-party candidate. Among Trump supporters, most said they backed him because they liked him, though a majority of Trump-backing independents said their votes were in opposition to Biden.

Among Biden supporters, most held that view: that they supported Biden because they disliked Trump. That was particularly true of independents — but even a plurality of Biden’s own Democratic Party were more likely to point to hostility to Trump than enthusiasm for Biden.

Most respondents said their choice was rooted in a comparison between the two candidates. But nearly half said it was a judgment on one of the two major-party candidates. Democrats were 10 points more likely to say their vote choice was a judgment on Trump than Biden. Republicans were six points more likely to say the choice was a judgment on Biden than Trump.

Perhaps predictably given the numbers above, Trump supporters were more likely to indicate strong support for their candidate than were Biden supporters. Overall, 93 percent of Biden supporters said they had strong support for him, with 7 in 10 saying it was very strong. Among Trump supporters, 96 percent had strong support, nearly 8 in 10 saying that support was very strong.

The strength of Trump’s support was larger both among members of his own party and among independents. Two-thirds of Trump’s independent supporters said their support was very strong, compared to 55 percent of Biden’s independent supporters. (The dotted lines above allow for easier comparison both overall and among independents.)

CBS also presented respondents with a battery of questions evaluating how each candidate was viewed. On only two did Biden receive higher marks: likability and compassion. On each of the rest, including competency and effectiveness, Trump fared better. It was generally the case that Trump was viewed more favorably by his party than Biden was by his — and that Trump was viewed less negatively by the opposing party than was Biden.

The numbers on likability are striking. Only one-third of respondents said they liked Trump; just under half said they liked Biden. But, as we noted last week, a lot of Biden and Trump supporters don’t particularly like their candidate. Dislike is a stronger factor in this election.

The CBS poll also asked respondents to evaluate the threat to democracy and the rule of law. Three-quarters of Democrats said that they believed democracy and the rule of law would be safe only if Biden won, as might be expected given the Biden campaign’s focus and Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 results.

But an equal percentage of Republicans said they thought democracy and the rule of law would only be safe if Trump is victorious, reflecting both his false claims about the 2020 election and about his indictments. (The poll also found that 8 in 10 Republicans believe the unsubstantiated claim that Biden had a hand in Trump’s indictments.) Overall, respondents were about equally likely to view Biden and Trump as the savior of the American system.

In total, the CBS News poll found that about a quarter of the electorate is backing Trump because they like Trump. Another quarter is backing Biden because they dislike Trump. Only 3 in 10 go the other way: pro-Trump because he’s not Biden or pro-Biden because he is Biden.

In other words, November will once again largely be a referendum on Trump, the incumbent president once removed.

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