Loathing Beats Loyalty

Was the 2016 contest unique, or are we destined to forever vote against the candidate we hate most?

Thomas B. Edsall points to a depressingly obvious fact in his NYT column “What Motivates Voters More Than Loyalty? Loathing.”*

Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty.

The building strength of partisan antipathy — “negative partisanship” — has radically altered politics. Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters. Ticket splitting is dying out. But perhaps the most important consequence of the current power of political anger is that there has been a marked decline in the accountability of public officials to the electorate.

How bad is this problem? In “The Strengthening of Partisan Affect,” Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin, political scientists at Stanford, note that

We find that as animosity toward the opposing party has intensified, it has taken on a new role as the prime motivator in partisans’ political lives.

Iyengar and Krupenkin argue that, “the impact of feelings toward the out-party on both vote choice and the decision to participate has increased since 2000; today it is out-group animus rather than in-group favoritism that drives political behavior.”

Along parallel lines, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, political scientists at Emory University, argue that “one of the most important trends in American politics over the past several decades has been the rise of negative partisanship in the electorate.”

In “All Politics is National: The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. House and Senate Elections in the 21st Century,” Abramowitz and Webster make the case that, “To a greater extent than at any time in the post-World War II era, the outcomes of elections below the presidential level reflect the outcomes of presidential elections. As a result, the famous comment by the late Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local” now seems rather quaint. In the 21st century United States, it increasingly appears that all politics is national.”

The practice of voting against rather than for has grown steadily since the 2000 election, but it reached new heights in 2016, when both major party nominees were viewed substantially more negatively than positively.

On Nov. 7, 2016, the day before the election, 58.5 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Donald Trump and 54.4 percent felt the same way about Hillary Clinton, according to RealClearPolitics. Favorable views were 37.5 for Trump and 41.8 percent for Clinton.

Abramowitz and Webster compiled data from the 2012 and 2016 elections to show how much the level of anger among both Democratic and Republican voters increased over four years.

In 2012, 33 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans described themselves as angry at the opposing party’s presidential candidate “most of the time” or “just about always.” In 2016, the percentage of Democratic voters who said they were this angry at Trump rose to 73 percent, and the percentage of Republicans with that level of hostility toward Hillary Clinton rose to 66 percent.

I was with Edsall until here. It’s entirely possible that 2016 was simply unique in that it’s unlikely the two major parties will ever again simultaneously nominate such unlikable and tainted candidates.

This trend helps explain seemingly contradictory voter attitudes catalogued in both “All Politics is National” and a second Abramowitz-Webster paper, “Negative Partisanship: Why Americans Dislike Parties but Behave like Rabid Partisans.”

From one vantage point, the view of each major party has steadily worsened. As Abramowitz and Webster point out, “The percentage of Americans with favorable opinions of both parties is now the lowest it has been since the American National Election Studies began asking this question in 1978.”

At the same time, “record numbers of voters in 2016 were dissatisfied with their own party’s presidential nominee.” Trump and Clinton were the most unpopular major party candidates for president since the ANES introduced the feeling thermometer scale in 1968.

The “feeling thermometer scale” asks voters to rank candidates and institutions on a scale of 0 to 100, in which 100 is very warm or favorable, zero is very cold or unfavorable and 50 is neutral or no feeling.

The accompanying graphic shows that both Democrats and Republicans had favorable views of their own candidates from 1968 to 2012, ranging from 76.5 percent in 1968 to 78.5 percent in 2012. In 2016, however, with Trump and Clinton as the nominees, the thermometer rating dropped sharply to 60.9 percent.

Over the same period, “feeling thermometer” ratings of the opposition candidate fell sharply, from 56.2 in 1968 to 25.1 in 2012. In 2016, the ratings of the opposition candidate plummeted to 12.2.

So, again, we seem to be imputing a “trend” from a single data point.

We have plenty of evidence that negative campaigning works and that die-hard partisans, especially, often hate the other team and their imputed values than they love their own team. That has to especially be the case for Republicans hanging on to Donald Trump, whose policies and ethical practices they would otherwise be marching in the streets against. But the uptick since 2016 in this phenomenon may well be an artifact of the moment rather than a precursor.


According to Abramowitz and Webster, in 2016, “large majorities of Democrats and Republicans truly despised the opposing party’s nominee.” Voters were motivated to go to the polls to cast ballots against the opposition’s nominee much more than to support their own party’s choice. The key factor “in predicting party loyalty in the 2016 presidential election was how voters felt about the opposing party’s presidential candidate.”

As regular readers well know, this played out for me over the long 2016 campaign. While I’d become a less enthusiastic Republican over the years, I’d voted for every GOP presidential nominee for whom I was eligible to vote, from 1984 to 2012. While I didn’t despise any Democratic nominee during that period except perhaps Bill Clinton, their negative characteristics sometimes helped motivate me to vote for Republican nominees for whom I was less than enthusiastic.

In 2016, it was obvious from essentially the beginning of the race that I could not support Trump. But Hillary Clinton was literally the worst nominee the Democrats could have chosen in terms of getting me to actually cross the aisle. That I ultimately did was a testament to how awful I thought Trump would be—and it turns out that I underestimated that.

Since, barring impeachment or tragedy, Trump is almost guaranteed to be the 2020 nominee, I’ll almost surely vote Democrat again. It’s unlikely that I’ll do so enthusiastically.

It’s quite conceivable that 2024 will pit decent candidates against one another. That’s especially true if the GOP gets trounced in the 2018 midterms and Trump is humiliated in 2020. The trend toward negative voting can indeed be reversed.


*I’ve taken the liberty of converting unnecessary block quotes in the original piece to simple quotations, mostly because block quotes inside block quotes look strange in our layout. I typically leave them, anyway, but Edsall’s quotations were often of only a sentence and never long enough to necessitate block quotes.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. gVOR08 says:

    The GOP base that made it possible to nominate and elect Donald Trump did not emerge suddenly. RW media and Republican pols have been nurturing it for thirty years. Hillary Clinton’s approval was in the mid sixties in 2013 and then was slowly driven down by the same RW media and Republican pols driving a constant, substance free, scandal on Benghzi!! and Clinton Foundation!!! and emails!!!! Fortunes were spent, and fortunes made, building up a hateful candidate in Trump and destroying Clinton.

    I don’t doubt the articles above are correct, but they seem to treat this mutual hostility as some sort of bipartisan phenomenon that just sort of happened. Creation of this was not bipartisan and it did not fall out of the sky. Republicans and their co-dependent media created this.

  2. James Pearce says:

    the current power of political anger is that there has been a marked decline in the accountability of public officials to the electorate.

    This is why I’ve been so critical of Democrats. On that side of the spectrum, at least, it seems that all you need to do is show up, have the right mood affiliation/identity, and you’re assured to have a safe, comfy term for decades. There’s no need to worry about being judged on how well you advance liberal causes, because while that’s important, it’s less important than pushing the right mood affiliation/identity buttons.

  3. MBunge says:

    I’d voted for every GOP presidential nominee for whom I was eligible to vote, from 1984 to 2012.

    1. In 2004, you voted for George W. Bush. Are you proud of that vote? Do you remain convinced the next four years with him was better than what we would have gotten under John Kerry’s leadership? Do you want to be reminded of all the stuff that happened and all the stuff we learned HAD happened in those four years?

    But…okay. Some people, like Andrew Sullivan, had figured it out by 2004 but others were slow on the uptake.

    2. In 2008, after one of the most disastrous and destructive Presidencies in American history, you still wanted to keep the GOP in power and voted for a guy who almost completely embraced the policies of the previous eight years, who had a massive ethical failure in his political history, who had accomplished virtually nothing as an elected official other than some campaign finance reform which ultimately failed to truly fix anything, who had a volcanic temper, and who legitimately looked out of his depth and with no idea of what was going on during a global economic crisis. THAT guy you voted for.

    3. In 2012, you voted for a shape-shifting political blob who ran to the Left of Ted Kennedy and then tried to claim he was “severely conservative,” who completely embraced the very policies and attitudes you claim were driving you away from the Republican party, and who said nearly half the country was made up of worthless parasites incapable of reason. THAT guy you voted for.

    4. But not only did you not vote for Donald Trump, you proudly stated you will not vote for him in 2020. No matter how much the economy grows. No matter how much our success against ISIS and Islamic terrorism continues. No matter how many federal judges are appointed that agree with your view of the law. No matter how much Trump continues to be the greatest restraint on the regulatory/administrative state that any of us have seen in our lifetime. Not even if each of the next three years continues to be as Mitch McConnell described 2017 “the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I’ve been here. The best year on all fronts.”

    Now, if you had looked at your past voting choices and decided you needed to change your ways, that would be one thing. But it’s pretty clear you would have been content to vote for Jeb Bush, an empty suit like Marco Rubio, or a man so personally loathsome he made Republicans in DC warm up to Donald Trump. But you just won’t vote for Donald Trump.

    What motivates you…logic or loathing?


  4. MBunge says:


    Republicans didn’t nominate Hillary Clinton for President when she was already massively unpopular with the American people. Republicans didn’t nominate Hillary Clinton for President while she was under FBI investigation for possible criminal prosecution. Republicans didn’t cheer wildly for an alleged rapist at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. And when’s the last time we saw a photo of Republicans palling around with Louis Farrakhan?

    I don’t know if I’d disagree that the Right deserves much of the blame for starting us down this road. The suggestion that the Left have been innocent bystanders along the way is so dumb it would have provoked mandatory sterilization in less enlightened times.


  5. steve says:

    While I agree that the trend could continue, there are an awful lot of people making an awful lot of money trying to make sure it continues. We may have a blip here and there, but unless our media changes I think this is the long run trend.


  6. James Pearce says:


    The suggestion that the Left have been innocent bystanders along the way is so dumb it would have provoked mandatory sterilization in less enlightened times.

    You’re right that the left deserves much of the blame for the state of our politics and that’s its abjectly ridiculous not to acknowledge that and point fingers only at Republicans.

    But you think Donald Trump is a conservative hero, not a symptom of something very wrong with our politics. Surely you understand that’s a minority view, right?

  7. de stijl says:

    I am at at heart a divided government person. I believe that a healthy give-and-take of ideas and policy proposals and core ideas is the right and just way to govern.

    When I was younger I tried to split my vote, even though I temperamentally and philosophically favored the Ds. I would scour the voter guides for positions and choose some Rs to cast my vote for.

    I am little-c conservative and little-p progressive. I prefer ordered, incremental policy changes with a robust fall-back if the newly implemented change has unintended consequences. I like improvements to the commonwealth.

    However, I am acutely justice-for-all oriented. (In the Moral Foundations theory, I am strongly in the Care and Fairness camps.) And injustice and systemic unfairness (if not outright cruelty), in my mind, calls for radical and immediate change.

    Even after Reagan I would try to find Rs worthy of my vote. It became harder and harder over time.

    After Gingrich (and Frank Luntz), no friggin’ way. You guys (the Rs) will not get any votes from me until you behave like decent adults. And you have to behave appropriately for more than two election cycles.

    Gingrich mainstreamed the zero-sum / take-no-prisoners / I-win-which-means-you-lose Limbaugh rhetoric. It’s post-policy. It’s inherently hostile and demeaning and accusatory. It’s not that I disagree with the policy, but I cannot abide the rancor. It’s juvenile College Republican dirty tricks / rat-f*cking tactics for every situation on every day for 25 years now.

    I disagree with the policy (what little there is of it it that comes out of their mouths), but it is the path they are on that is morally and ethically and civilly objectionable. Confrontation is preferred to compromise by a factor of a million.

    I have not regretted that decision to never vote for an R again. Not once. Because it has gone from *very bad* in the Gingrich days to mega-super-ultimate-insanely-uber bad ever since.

    I am a centrist technocrat (except for fairness / justice, where I’m prudently radical).

    I would not vote R if you put a gun to my head. To hearken back to James’ headline, I loathe Rs because of how they choose to behave.

  8. de stijl says:

    @James Pearce:

    You’re right that the left deserves much of the blame for the state of our politics and that’s its abjectly ridiculous not to acknowledge that and point fingers only at Republicans.

    If this were 1971, you’d be partially correct. In 2018, you are are incorrect.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    @de stijl: The current situation is at least partially an outcome of a path the Democratic Party chose to walk. It chose to abandon labor in 1972 and turn to the New Democrat model of hostility to unions and friendliness to corporate interests. And until Democrats are willing to face up to that legacy I don’t see a future beyond intensification of what is now in front of us.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    It is not a marriage, it is a hiring decision. Presented with a choice between an unlikable but competent professional, and a ranting baboon, 46% of American voters made a decision so clearly stupid that any HR professional who’d made the same choice wouldn’t just be fired, she’d be fired out of the window. It was inexcusably stupid, inexcusably reckless. It was a catastrophic failure of the American voter.

    Do I wish we’d had a more attractive candidate? Yes. Do I wish we had faster than light travel? Yes. So what? You choose between what you’ve got, not between what you’ve got and what you might have in some alternate universe. If I want to travel to NYC it’ll be on a plane using jet engines, not one using a warp drive. The choice was Clinton or Trump, and only a complete fwcking moron could fail to figure that out.

  11. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You’re exactly right. Though I admit most companies would have taken a look at the 2016 applicants, decide none of them were a good match for their needs, and then try to convince Obama to stay on (with a very nice bonus as incentive) while they re-ran the recruitment process hoping for a better list of candidates.

    But given a need to hire immediately, Clinton would have been an easy first among the applicants they got, and Trump near the bottom (including behind some of the joke candidates).