Americans Are in No Mood for a Trump Presidency

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigns in Milwaukee on April 3. A major new poll shows that, on key issues, Trump has rallied a coalition of intense sentiment that is often at odds with the electorate as a whole and even with the majority of the Republican Party. Darren Hauck/reuters

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.

A major new Pew Research Center survey paints a vivid portrait of a divided and anxious American public in this volatile election year, while challenging much conventional wisdom about the electorate's sentiments.

Against this backdrop, the survey, released March 31, suggests that if Donald Trump were to receive the Republican presidential nomination, he would face a steeply uphill battle in the general election.

Many Americans are nostalgic for a vanished past. Forty-six percent believe that compared with 50 years ago, life in America today is worse for "people like you"; only 34 percent think that it is better.

Beneath these aggregate figures, the differences are stark. Fifty-four percent of whites say that things have gotten worse; only 17 percent of African-Americans agree. Older Americans are twice as likely to perceive this decline as are young adults.

Individuals with a BA or more are inclined to see improvement; less educated Americans are not. Overall, 60 percent of Republicans say that things have gotten worse, compared with only 28 percent of Democrats.

These gaps narrow, however, when voters' attention turns toward the future. The pervasiveness of their pessimism is striking. Overall, 51 percent of Americans believe that life for the next generation will be worse, more than twice the 24 percent who expect it to be better. Pluralities or majorities in every category—gender, race and ethnicity, age, education, partisanship and ideology—concur.

Despite their foreboding about the future, people are no angrier with the federal government than they were in 2015, 2014 or early 2013. In the past decade, on average, 21 percent of the people expressed anger toward the government—precisely the share in the Pew survey.

Nor have Americans turned against immigrants, even those who arrived outside the law. By a margin of 57 to 35 percent, Americans say that rather than burdening our country by taking jobs, housing and health care, immigrants are strengthening our country through their talents and hard work.

To be sure, there are large differences between the two political parties: 78 percent of Democrats take the affirmative view, while 56 percent of Republicans endorse the negative view.

Nonetheless, a solid majority of Republicans—57 percent—favor a way for illegal immigrants to remain in the country legally; only 41 percent say that they should not be allowed to stay, and less than one-third favor mass deportation.

By a margin of 71 to 3 percent, Democrats say that our increasing diversity makes the United States a better place to live. By a smaller but still considerable margin of 46 to 13 percent, Republicans agree.

Although Bernie Sanders's critique of free trade has led Hillary Clinton to soften her support for it, Republicans are more opposed to free trade than are Democrats. Fifty-three percent of Republicans believe that free trade agreements have been bad for the United States, compared with only 34 percent of Democrats.

Despite the difficulties of recent years, Americans do not want to retreat from our long-standing position of global leadership. Sixty percent of the electorate—including 65 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of Democrats and even 57 percent of Donald Trump's supporters—believes that our problems would be worse without U.S. involvement; only 34 percent say that our effort to solve international problems just makes things worse.

Against this backdrop, the Pew survey shows that on key issues, Trump has rallied a coalition of intense sentiment that is often at odds with the electorate as a whole and even with the majority of the Republican Party.

For example, fully 50 percent of Trump's supporters are angry with the federal government, and 52 percent say that illegal immigrants should not be allowed to remain in the country, compared with 41 percent for Cruz supporters and 24 percent for Kasich's.

Seventy-three percent of Kasich's supporters express satisfaction with their personal financial situation, as do 61 percent of Cruz's; only 48 percent of Trump supporters agree.

Sixty-seven percent of Trump's supporters say that free trade agreements are bad for the United States; only 46 percent of Kasich's supporters and 40 percent of Cruz's concur. Sixty percent of Trump's supporters report that these agreements have harmed their family's finances, compared with Kasich's 42 percent and Cruz's 36 percent.

Trump's outlier status, even within his own party, bodes ill for his prospects in the general election. Fully 59 percent of registered voters say that he would make a "poor" or "terrible" president, a view shared by 50 percent of Ted Cruz's supporters and 55 percent of John Kasich's.

This reflects more than the passions of an intensely contested nominating process: Only 28 percent of Bernie Sanders's supporters think that Hillary Clinton would be a poor or terrible occupant of the Oval Office. Only 38 percent of Republicans expect their party to unite solidly behind Trump if he is their nominee, compared with 64 percent of Democrats who anticipate unity if Hillary Clinton is their nominee.

A candidate running to succeed a two-term incumbent of his or her own party will have a tough time if the incumbent's job approval is low. For much of Barack Obama's second term, his approval languished in the low to mid-40s. For the past year, it has been stuck at 46 percent. Between January and March of this year, however, it rose to 51 percent, while disapproval fell to 44 percent.

History suggests that if his standing were to remain at this level for the remainder of 2016, his party's nominee would get a modest boost, mitigating the inherent difficulty of winning after eight years of a Democratic presidency.

With drag from the incumbent reduced, the Republican nominee would have to win on his own merits with the backing of a united party. If the nominee is Donald Trump and the Pew survey is on target, it is hard to see how that can happen.

William A. Galston is a senior fellow of Governance Studies and the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. A former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.