Do most Americans dislike both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Some commentators and news reports suggest that they do. And so you get headlines like: “Poll: Majority of Americans Dislike Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump” or “Poll: 6 in 10 Dislike or Hate Trump and Clinton.”
These headlines are misleading. Yes, both Clinton and Trump have unusually high unfavorable ratings — higher than those of any major party nominee in many years. But only a minority of Americans actually dislikes both candidates. The actual majority of Americans likes one but not the other, and feels pretty strongly about it.
Consider the survey conducted by the American National Election Study from Jan. 22-28. Although this was conducted before the first presidential caucuses or primaries, most Democrats already backed Clinton and the plurality of Republicans backed Trump.
Respondents were asked to rate the candidates on a scale ranging from zero (extremely unfavorable) to 100 (extremely favorable). Hillary Clinton received an average rating of 41 degrees and Trump received an average rating of 40 degrees. Only 43 percent of respondents rated Clinton favorably (above 50) while 55 percent rated her negatively (below 50). Trump did slightly worse — 40 percent of respondents rated him favorably while 57 percent rated him negatively.
Clinton and Trump weren’t unusual, however. None of the political figures included in the survey had an average rating above 50. Ted Cruz’s was 41, Bernie Sanders’s was 47 and President Obama’s was 46.
Moreover, even though both Clinton and Trump were viewed unfavorably overall, only a minority of respondents — 23 percent — had unfavorable opinions of both. The majority of respondents, 63 percent, rated one favorably and the other unfavorably: 33 percent of respondents rated Clinton favorably and Trump unfavorably, while 30 percent rated Trump favorably and Clinton unfavorably. Only 9 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of both.
Very few respondents were indifferent between Clinton and Trump and most strongly preferred one to the other. Those preferring Clinton rated her an average of 54 points higher than Trump, while those preferring Trump rated him an average of 53 points higher than Clinton.
More recent data show the same thing. A YouGov/Economist surveys ask respondents to rate the candidates on four-point scales that range from very unfavorably to very favorable. In the three surveys conducted in May and early June, only 25 percent had unfavorable views of both Trump and Clinton. The majority, 64 percent, liked one but not the other. A June Gallup poll shows this as well.
To be sure, this 25 percent figure is higher than in 2012. At this point in the 2012 campaign, only 12 percent had an unfavorable view of both Romney and Obama. But of course, that campaign featured no Democratic primary at all and more Republican unity around Romney than around Trump.
These findings reflect the prevalence of “negative partisanship” in the American electorate. Americans’ opinions of candidates and elected officials are sharply divided along party lines, and negative feelings about the opposing party tend to be stronger than positive feelings about one’s own party.
For example, in the ANES survey, Democrats gave Hillary Clinton an average rating of 68, or 18 points above the neutral point. But they gave Donald Trump an average rating of 21, or 29 points below the neutral point.
Meanwhile, Republicans gave Donald Trump an average rating of 62, or 12 above the neutral point. But they gave Hillary Clinton an average rating of 16, or 34 below the neutral point.
While many Democrats and Republicans are not (yet) thrilled with their own party’s candidate, the vast majority strongly dislike the other party’s candidate. As a result, the large majority of Democrats strongly prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump and the large majority of Republicans strongly prefer Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton. Based on these results, we should expect to see high levels of party loyalty in November — despite the high unfavorables of both candidates.
Alan Abramowitz is Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University.