The most recent Pew poll showed that, by a 6-point margin (33-27), the No. 1 reason cited by Trump voters for supporting him is “he is not Clinton” (number two is that he’s a “political outsider/will bring change”). Only after you get past that 60 percent of the Trump vote do you find people who are mainly attracted to Trump personally, his positions, or the tiny minority (4 percent) who say they are voting for him because he’s the Republican in the race. (Eleven percent of Trump supporters tell Pew they will feel disappointed or angry if Trump wins). Of course, some of those explanations overlap, and Hillary’s support isn’t a whole lot more positive, as the top two reasons for voting Hillary, tied at 32 percent, are “She is not Trump” and that she’s “experienced/will get things done.”
The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll has some comparative data from the last three election cycles to show just how much of the candidates’ support is negative – that is, how many people are voting more against Hillary than for Trump, or vice versa. In table form:
Unsurprisingly, when an incumbent is on the ballot, the incumbent is the dominant issue: most votes in 2004 were for or against Bush, not Kerry, and most votes in 2012 were for or against Obama, not Romney. But it’s interesting to compare this year to 2008, the last election with no incumbent. Obama was a much more inspirational figure to Democratic voters than Hillary, although the WSJ/NBC poll still has slightly more Democrats voting for Hillary rather than voting against Trump. That should be a concern to Democratic partisans, as negativity is less of a motivator for marginal voters to turn out – although it’s hard to predict how the depths of fear of Trump among non-white voters will play as a motivator.
Trump, however, has a lot less positive support among his backers than John McCain did. One reason is doubtless that Republicans were in power in 2008, and disenchantment ran high, so even McCain voters were not as fearful of change as Trump voters are angry and fearful of what four more years of the Democrats can accomplish. But also, political obsessives who dwell on his immigration record and general anti-Bush gadfly status forget that McCain was first and foremost a war hero running a campaign built around service and national security, and even after everything else, his most committed base of support (which carried him to his crucial primary victory in South Carolina) was veterans. A lot of Republicans who grumbled about McCain still felt they could be proud to have him as Commander-in-Chief and trust him in times of national peril.
Trump hasn’t earned that. If it’s possible for him to still convince more voters that he should be seen that way, tonight will be his last chance to make a new impression.