In follow-up interviews, poll respondents from both sides who viewed the election as unusually important often circled back to the same view: the belief that the race had become a referendum on America’s values and national identity at a time of rapid cultural and demographic change.
Nunnally, the truck driver, is passionately supporting Trump (“If she wins we’re doomed”) largely because of his views on immigration and terrorism. But he also expressed a deep alienation from many manifestations of a more diverse society:
We can’t even fly the Confederate flag anymore because it’s offensive towards the different heritages, you know whatever you want to call it, but yet they force black history month down our throat. I’m not trying to sound racist, but I mean, you go into any city in the country—like I said, I drive a truck—I go around this country all the time, there’s not one city in the country that doesn’t have a Martin Luther King Boulevard, but you can’t sit there and fly a Confederate flag, you can’t say, ‘General Robert E. Lee’ or ‘Thomas Jefferson,’ we’ve got to take our president off our currency so we can put Harriet Tubman on there? I mean, it’s offensive to some of us that we’re having to lose our own heritage because it’s offensive to somebody else.
Eckman, the Ohio Democrat, views the election as a critical statement on the nation’s values. “There are so many changes going on in the country right now, and bringing the country up to date, like with gay marriage and the marijuana thing and the gun laws [would matter],” she said. “It could be our first woman president, or it could be our first president that has really nothing to do with politics at all. It’s important. It’s almost scary it’s so important.”
In interviews, several of those who portrayed the election as unusually important were more likely to cite antipathy toward the candidate they oppose than enthusiasm for the one they support. “We’re basically putting our best bet on a guy that’s made billions of dollars but has no political experience, or placing our bet on a woman who has done horrible things in the past but is somewhat of a political leader,” said Alex Newman, 18, a Republican in Snellville, Georgia, who is enrolling in college this fall. “I just don't know how the country can deal with that as a whole.”
From the other side, Perez, a Bernie Sanders supporter during the Democratic primary, is dubious that a Clinton victory will produce many tangible gains in his life. But he says, “Any vote against Trump is a vote that’s needed. It’s a vote for me, you, my family, your family, everybody’s family … because if we thought that the [George W.] Bush presidency was bad, a Trump presidency would be unfathomably terrible.”
One final result helps explain the gap between the solid majority who consider the election more significant than usual and the more modest share who expect a big personal impact. Only about one-third of those surveyed said they are expecting big progress on the issues they care most about if their candidate wins in November. Another two-fifths are expecting just “modest” progress, while a fifth are expecting no change.