The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The polarization of Trump, in one simple poll result

President Donald Trump with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
2 min

I am not revealing any secrets about American politics when I tell you that former president Donald Trump is polarizing. Trump is broadly understood to be polarizing and Trump revels in being polarizing. His presidency was largely defined by his efforts to reward his allies and punish his opponents — itself just a form of rewarding his allies. It’s what he’s about.

But still, when Quinnipiac University produced polling showing the effects of that polarization, it seemed useful to highlight.

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The pollsters asked questions about American politics and politicians. The questions included two that are interesting to contrast: whether people approved of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s tenure as leader and whether they identified as supporters of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement.

In theory, these are reflections of two sides of the same coin. A Republican is probably likely to support both MAGA and McCarthy (R-Calif.); a Democrat, to reject them. But when we compare the two responses, we see an interesting pattern: Views of Trump are more divided than views of McCarthy.

Below, I’ve plotted the responses for different groups included in the poll on a scatter plot. From bottom to top, the dots indicate more alliance with MAGA. From left to right, more approval for McCarthy. So the Republican dot at the top right shows strong support for each; the Democratic dot at lower left, strong opposition. This is what we’d expect.

But what we might also expect — were we new to this modern era of American politics — is that those dots would generally fall along the diagonal gray line. That people would be about as likely to say they agreed with the political agenda of the former president as they approved of the Republican House leader.

But what we see instead is that the light-purple trend line starts below the gray diagonal and then rises above it. That Republicans and those without a college degree, groups more aligned with Trump, view MAGA more positively than McCarthy. And Democrats and the college-educated, groups opposed to Trump, view McCarthy more positively.

This is Trump’s strength and his weakness. He and his agenda have an enthusiastic loyalty that most other Republicans don’t match. It’s why he has consistently led in 2024 Republican primary voting.

But this is also why he lost the popular vote in both 2016 and 2020 — and why Republicans got crushed in 2018 and underperformed in 2022. His agenda is less popular than other Republicans, and elections centered on his agenda work against his party.

Again, not a surprising finding. One worth keeping in mind over the next 20 months, however.