Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate in 2016. (John Locher/AP)

We like to think about electoral contests as noble engagements in which voters pick between qualified candidates. That’s the ideal, right? Two respected community leaders offering themselves for consideration, debating the issues and allowing an informed electorate to choose between them.

Uh, why are you laughing?

In modern politics, elections tend to be somewhat simpler. Members of one major party overwhelmingly vote for that party’s candidate; members of the other major party do the same. The Pew Research Center has regularly looked at partisan polarization and finds not only that political beliefs are highly polarized but also that members of one party increasingly see members of the other as a threat to the country.

What’s left, then, are independents. Independents often ally with one party or the other, but that’s often because they simply dislike the party they vote against more than the one they tend to vote for. In other words, a lot of voters (not all of them independents) simply dislike everyone, and how they end up voting can vary.

Why’s that important? Because in recent elections, those haters seem to have been the difference-makers in the results.

In 2012, Mitt Romney was not viewed overwhelmingly positively, but President Barack Obama was seen more favorably than unfavorably. In 2014, though, nearly a quarter of likely voters in Washington Post-ABC polling in early October said they disliked both political parties. Democrats mostly liked Democrats and Republicans mostly liked (and planned to vote for) Republicans — but 23 percent disliked both parties.

Among that group, Republicans had a 17-point advantage.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

On Election Day, that was probably significant. Republicans expanded their majority in Congress, took control of the Senate and made gains in statehouses.

In 2016, both presidential candidates were viewed more negatively than positively. Again, those who liked only the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, planned to vote overwhelmingly for her. Those who liked only Donald Trump, the Republican, planned to vote for him. Then there was nearly a fifth of the electorate that disliked both candidates, according to exit polls.

They preferred Trump by 17 points.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Clinton still won the popular vote. But in the three states that Trump won by about 78,000 combined votes to win an electoral-college majority, this was probably a critical differentiator.

  • In Michigan, 20 percent of voters disliked both candidates. They preferred Trump by 21 points.
  • In Pennsylvania, 17 percent of voters disliked both. They preferred Trump by 25 points.
  • In Wisconsin, 22 percent disliked both. They preferred Trump by 37 points.

Trump won those states by 0.3, 0.7 and 0.8 percentage points, respectively.

Which brings us to The Washington Post’s most recent poll, conducted with George Mason University’s Schar School and released on Tuesday. This is a poll only of battleground House districts, mind you, but the pattern is different.

Only 10 percent of likely voters dislike both parties — but they prefer Democratic candidates by 15 points.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

That the percentage is lower than in 2014 or 2016 suggests that maybe there are fewer hater-voters than in the past — or maybe that there are simply fewer in battleground areas. But the split between the parties among that group is interesting. In the past two elections, the voters who disliked their options ended up deciding to vote for the GOP. At least in these places, the Democrats can now expect more of their support.

Perhaps in 2020 this will be less of an issue. Maybe the percentage of people who dislike both candidates will continue to decline as voters side with one party or the other. Or perhaps we’ll have two presidential candidates who are broadly viewed favorably by the electorate.

Crazier things have happened.