One of the most enduring descriptions of presidential power comes from Teddy Roosevelt, whose description of the office as a “bully pulpit” reflected his conclusion that its true worth was not its constitutional powers, but the ability to speak with and persuade voters. A century later, political scientists had largely debunked Roosevelt. It turns out, Ezra Klein wrote in The New Yorker in 2012, that presidents don’t actually possess much power to sway public opinion.
But maybe Roosevelt was right after all. Recent polling shows that Donald Trump has managed to reshape American attitudes to a remarkable extent on a trio of his key issues—race, immigration, and trade.
There’s just one catch: The public is turning against Trump’s views.
A Reuters poll released today contains a trove of interesting data on race. Trump has long sought to use racial tension to gain political leverage, but this summer he has become especially explicit about exploiting and exaggerating racial divisions, with a series of racist attacks on four Democratic congresswomen, and then on their colleague Elijah Cummings, as a strategy ahead of the 2020 election.
But the Reuters poll casts doubt on that strategy: “The Reuters analysis also found that Americans were less likely to express feelings of racial anxiety this year, and they were more likely to empathize with African Americans. This was also true for white Americans and whites without a college degree, who largely backed Trump in 2016.”
Among the details, the number of whites who say “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage” has sunk nine points since last August. The percentages of whites, and white Republicans, who strongly agree that “white people are currently under attack in this country” have each dropped by roughly 25 points from the same time two years ago.
It isn’t entirely clear what is motivating these changes. As Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke, told me recently, there has been a 10 percent drop in the number of Americans who espouse white identity politics since Trump entered office. Many members of that group interpreted the election of Barack Obama, the first black president, as a threat to their group, and with Obama out of office, they may feel less threatened. Jardina also noted, though, that Trump’s most explicit racist rhetoric turns off voters who may feel threatened but don’t exhibit classical racial prejudice.
But the Trump era has also radicalized Democrats, and especially white Democrats, who by some measures are actually more liberal on race than fellow Democrats who are minorities. Reuters found that more Democrats say blacks are treated unfairly at work and by the police than in 2016—remarkable given how coverage of police violence toward African Americans has dropped in the past few years—while Republican attitudes have remained unchanged.
Meanwhile, opinion shifts like the ones on race appear elsewhere. Consider immigration, which is Trump’s signature issue—though it is also inextricable from race, especially given Trump’s focus on and rhetoric about Hispanic immigration.
Reuters found that white Americans are 19 percent more supportive of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants than they were four years ago, and slightly less supportive of increased deportations. Other polls find related results. A record-high number of Americans—75 percent—said in 2018 that immigration is good for the United States. Although the Trump administration took steps last week to limit even legal immigration, the Trump presidency has seen an increase in the number of Americans who support more legal immigration—not just among Democrats, but even slightly among Republicans.
Trump, like other presidents but arguably more so, exerts a special type of gravity by virtue of his ability to set the topic of conversation. His fearmongering on immigration has led even Trump critics to argue that if moderates and liberals do not limit immigration, it will embolden hard-liners like Trump. Yet far from suggesting a large appetite for greater immigration restrictions that’s being unmet, the polling data suggest a large appetite for more immigration that’s going unfulfilled thanks to Trump’s aggressive rhetoric. Moreover, there’s been evidence of a backlash against the president’s invective since the first months of his term. Trump has managed to force a national conversation around immigration, but rather than bring people to his side, he has convinced them he’s wrong.
One big problem for Trump is that voters have now gotten a chance to see him implement ideas that seemed novel or at least worth a shot during the campaign, and they don’t like what they’re seeing in practice. A trade war with China might have seemed worthwhile in summer 2016, but now that there’s actually one being fought, the public is having second thoughts, and fears of a recession are growing. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released yesterday found that 64 percent of Americans think free trade is good, up from 57 in 2017, 55 in 2016, and 51 in 2015. Meanwhile, the percentage who say free trade is bad has dropped 10 points since 2017.
The rising support for free trade is interesting in light of the Democratic presidential field’s attitudes toward trade. Barack Obama was a free trader and pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade agreement that was torpedoed by Trump early in his term. This year’s Democratic field has been notably skeptical of trade. In some cases, such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, that skepticism is rooted in long-held economic views. But other Democrats who were once more supportive of trade deals have also soured on them. It is possible that they, too, have been fooled by the Trump gravitational field into overestimating the public opposition to free trade.
Raw polling can, admittedly, be somewhat misleading on its own. Progressives have for years lamented the gap between the fairly liberal policies that the public says it favors and those that its elected representatives actually pursue. One reason for that is not everyone votes, and those who don’t vote tend toward the left.
But the Reuters poll offers reason to believe that the shifts it documents are directly relevant to the coming election. The poll found that “people who rejected racial stereotypes were more interested in voting in the 2020 general election than those who expressed stronger levels of anti-black or anti-Hispanic biases.” That wasn’t the case in 2016, when Americans who held strong antiblack views were more politically engaged.
With his focus on increasing racial divisions, stoking immigration fears, and fighting a trade war, President Trump is poised to stake his reelection on turning out the same base that he did in 2016, and hoping that those voters who elected Barack Obama but stayed home rather than cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton will take a pass once again. But Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 was razor-thin, because he lost the popular vote and won key midwestern states by only a few tens of thousands of votes. If anti-racist voters remain more enthused than prejudiced ones, it’s difficult to see how he would repeat that feat.