Keeping in mind how flawed they are, and keeping in mind that the wording of their questions matters a lot, several polls are now in (out?) on the intertwined issues of what to do about the nation’s various (and variegated!) Confederate monuments, and how Americans viewed President Trump’s response to the recent Charlottesville, Virginia “Unite the Right” rally, the counter-protests it attracted, and the violence that resulted – which of course produced the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. The findings seem pretty clear, if somewhat challenging to explain: Most Americans don’t want the statues etc, removed from public spaces, but at the same time, most Americans disapproved of Mr. Trump’s response to the controversy – which included a defense of keeping the monuments in place.
Huffington Post, a news outlet I rarely cite, just performed a useful service by compiling the results of seven surveys on the Confederate monuments question conducted this month by six organizations. In five of the seven (including the NPR-Marist poll I wrote about last Friday), majorities backed keeping the monuments exactly where they are. In one of the outliers, this position was backed by a big plurality (49 percent).
The only survey showing a widespread desire for change found that by a wide 58 percent to 26 percent margin, respondents supported “relocating monuments honoring the Confederacy from government property and moving them to museums or other historic sites where they can be viewed in proper historical context.” Unless it’s assumed that “proper historical context” would portray the Confederate cause in an overall less-than-flattering light, even this arguably moderate viewpoint doesn’t exactly demonstrate that most Americans view its links to slavery and treason as especially troubling. Which of course I find especially troubling.
It’s possible to explain how these opinions dovetail with the negative reviews drawn by the president’s Charlottesville-related words and deeds, but it’s anything but easy, as I’ll elaborate on in a moment. But first the actual findings.
The earliest survey on the matter yielded results that could be seen as ambiguous. It was the NPR-Marist poll, and it showed that by 51 percent to 31 percent, the public viewed the Trump “response to the violence in Charlottesville” was “not strong enough” (as opposed to being “strong enough). This poll, remember, came out on August 17, and was only asking respondents about the president’s remarks as of Monday, August 14 and Tuesday, August 15 – before his late Tuesday afternoon press conference, when he made much more controversial comments. So it wasn’t entirely clear of whom Mr. Trump should have spoken more “strongly” – if any group or individual.
Subsequent polls, however, have made clear that most Americans believe that the racial issues as well as that Trump performance lay at the heart of their criticisms. The first clue came in a CBS News poll that was released on Thursday, the 17th. According to the pollsters, a strong majority disapproved of “Trump’s response to Charlottesville” attack and that “Disapproval of the president’s handling of events rose [in interviews conducted] following the [Tuesday] press conference.” Indeed, those interviewed by CBS Tuesday and Wednesday frowned on Mr. Trump’s remarks by a 58 percent to 33 percent margin. The Monday interviewees disapproved by a 52 percent to 35 percent margin.
On August 21, the Washington Post reported that a poll it conducted with ABC News found that that Mr. Trump’s Charlottesville comments earned a failing grade from Americans by a two-to-one ration (56 percent versus 28 percent). And three days later, a survey conducted by Harvard University and the Harris polling firm found that 57 percent of respondents viewed the Trump remarks as a missed opportunity to bring the country together, and 57 percent believed he should do more to promote racial unity. (And in case you’re wondering, 59 percent agreed that the President should be doing more in this respect.)
Moreover a similar Harris finding – that the Trump comments did more to divide the country than to unite it – was supported by data both from the CBS News poll and a separate Politico/Morning Consult survey released on August 23).
Nevertheless, these polls all presented results that raise important questions as to exactly how their Charlottesville-related views are or aren’t influencing Americans’ views on race relations above and beyond the Confederate monuments controversy.
For example, despite the stated desire both for better race relations and for a greater presidential effort to bring them about, and even though Mr. Trump’s comments on Charlottesville were broadly unpopular, most of the polling evidence shows agreement with the President’s view that both sides deserve equal blame for the violence in that city. (CBS’ was the only poll I found with contrasting results.) Those two sets of views don’t easily jibe with the great dissatisfaction expressed with Mr. Trump’s comments ostensibly because they weren’t racially sensitive enough.
Moreover, fully nine percent of Americans, according to the Post-ABC poll, said that it is “acceptable” to “hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views.” Another eight percent were undecided. (The NPR-Marist poll, held before the heated Trump press conference, found support for “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” groups at only half these levels.)
The best explanation I’ve found for these apparent inconsistencies comes from Mark Penn, a well known pollster who helps direct the Harvard-Harris operations. Penn centered on that Trump press conference and contended, “His arguing the point about the violence is a Pyrrhic victory as he still gets the blame for the polarization in the country. The voters are looking for a uniter and he is coming off as a divider.”
I fully agree that Mr. Trump’s big post-Charlottesville problem has been being too argumentative (on top of firing off inconsistent comments seemingly from day to day) and that most Americans want a unifier in the White House. Yet the polls and Penn’s observation leave me less convinced that a critical mass of the country agrees on what it wants this unifying message to be, especially when it comes to race issues.