Prevailing 'anti' campaigns lead to disunity and volatility

Prevailing 'anti' campaigns lead to disunity and volatility
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America’s latest governing majorities are centered on opposition, which foments political disunity and enhanced volatility. Because America’s majority is primarily voting against, rather than for, candidates, they are largely unattached to those they elect. This also means they can abandon their choices quickly at the first signs of disagreement or difficulty. 

America’s last two presidential elections have seen America’s politics determined by voters’ opposition more than their support. In former President TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE’s case, he was never able to fully obtain sufficient support once in office; in President BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE’s case, the question is whether he can retain sufficient support in office. In both cases, the issue centers on turning their “anti” campaign’s potential into “pro” support for their administrations.

2016 saw an anti-Washington and anti-Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Shontel Brown wins Ohio Democratic primary in show of establishment strength READ: Cuomo's defense against sexual harassment investigation MORE majority prevail and propel Trump to victory. 2020 saw an anti-Trump majority prevail and propel Biden to victory. In both cases, it was what the winning candidate was not, rather than what he was, that determined the outcome.

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Although an “anti” campaign obviously can be effective, its long-term efficacy is another matter. Despite Trump’s support proving remarkably resilient, increasing in absolute number and percentage of the popular vote, he was unable to duplicate his 2016 success four years later. Instead, Trump was turned out by an “anti” campaign aimed at him.

Again, while effective, the Biden “anti” campaign’s staying power can also be questioned. According to the Real Clear Politics average of national polling on Biden’s job approval shows a significant slippage after just four months in office. On Jan. 27, RCP’s national polling average showed Biden with a 55.5 to 36 percent approval rating, a 19.5 percentage point positive spread. On May 17, Biden’s rating was 53.7 percent to 42.6 percent, just a 11.1 percentage point positive spread.  

Looking inside the job approval polling numbers gives an indication of why Biden’s positive margin has fallen so notably: There is a sizable gap between his strong support and his overall support. On May 17, Rasmussen’s daily tracking numbers showed Biden with a 51 percent to 48 percent approval rating. Yet Biden’s strong support at just 30 percent, which means he is attracting 21 points of non-strongly approving support to reach his 51 percent overall support. The supposition is that although these voters were decidedly anti-Trump, they were (and are) not strongly pro-Biden.

The polarizing effect on the electorate is evident in our current political climate. The “anti” campaign gives the electorate an atomized quality as each group unites around their reason for opposition instead of a common point for support. They do not feel themselves pulling together, as much as sharing an intent to pull apart. They are not so much unified as united in opposition.  

The effect of such lukewarm attachment to a winning candidate of an “anti” campaign makes governing a difficult exercise; it also makes government itself a volatile one.

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Lacking great personal support, a president who has won office in an “anti” campaign needs to be ever conscious of maintaining the support of a large number of lukewarm supporters (in Biden’s Rasmussen estimate, roughly 40 percent of his overall support). It leaves him little leeway with the public during the negative outcomes that accompany every presidency. Beyond personal gratification, good polling numbers are important in maintaining a president’s political leverage nationally and internationally.

The lack of strong attachment to a candidate, in contrast to strong opposition to his former opponent, also makes voters more than simply fluid in the polls; it makes them fluid at the polls. The result has been a pronounced political and policy volatility.  

In 2016, popular support for Clinton (48.1 percent) dropped significantly from Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAzar regrets Trump didn't get vaccinated on national TV Franklin D. Roosevelt's prescient warning Harris 'root causes' immigration plan faces challenges MORE (50.9 percent) in 2012. In 2020, support for Biden (51.3 percent) jumped significantly from Clinton in 2016. The change in the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations has been even more pronounced, with none of the three bearing a particularly close resemblance to the others — even those of Obama and Biden, despite Biden having served as Obama’s Vice President. 

This is not to say that the “anti” dynamic is solely responsible for the electorate’s polarization and disunity. The “anti” dynamic is an effect, as well as a cause, of America’s underlying social fragmentation. Yet the “anti” campaigns do serve to exacerbate the conditions that drive them by viscerally accentuating these conditions. 

A wound reopened every four years — and continually probed in the interim — is unlikely to progress far in the healing process. The result is that today’s political disunity is further exaggerated, and political volatility further escalated.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.