National perspective: Opposition research

David M. Shribman


Today’s lesson is on the phenomenon known as “negative partisanship.” Don’t turn away from this column thinking you have no idea what that means. You know exactly what it means — and you probably feel it profoundly.

It may be the most powerful force in today’s politics. It may explain the way we think, live, and vote. It may help you understand what is going on in Washington, D.C., as national leaders haggle over extending the debt limit. It may provide answers about why Joe Biden is president now — and why Donald Trump was president from 2017 to 2021. 

The short explanation is that we are motivated more by what we oppose than by what we support — and that we are more motivated to vote against certain candidates than we are to vote in favor of them. 

If the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes were writing this column, he would offer a shorthand: We deplore, therefore we are.

Burrowing into peoples’ heads is tricky business, but negative partisanship suggests that Biden very likely won the White House in 2020 less because of his qualities — Washington experience, a calming persona, a relatively moderate portfolio of priorities — but more because voters rejected the chaos, COVID mismanagement and pugilistic personal style of Trump. 

“This theory explains whom donors contribute to — and against — and whom voters support and oppose,” said Charles Hunt, a Boise State University political scientist. “It’s not the qualities of the individuals themselves but whom they dislike that matters to voters. It’s not that voters care less about candidates than they did before. It’s just that they care more about, and think more about, the candidates they detest.”

This is not an entirely new way of looking at politics. 

Both William McKinley (twice, in 1896 and 1900) and William Howard Taft (1908) very likely were elected in large measure because of voters’ fears of William Jennings Bryan, whom many considered an agrarian rebel. 

Richard Nixon was reelected in 1972 in some measure because of fears of George McGovern’s liberalism. 

Americans voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 because they were impatient with, if not contemptuous of, Jimmy Carter. 

Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas once told me the best way to understand how the chamber worked was to know who hated whom. It was a lesson that applies beyond the Capitol.

In a groundbreaking 2016 article in the journal Electoral Studies, Emory University scholars Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster argue that “while the feelings of Democrats and Republicans about their own party have changed very little, their feelings about the opposing party have become much more negative.”

More recent public-opinion polling has underscored that view. 

A 2022 Pew Research Center survey showed vastly increased partisan hostility, leading its analysts to conclude that “increasingly, Republicans and Democrats view not just the opposing party but also the people in that party in a negative light.”

Back in 2016, 47 percent of Republicans considered Democrats immoral. By last year, the rate had climbed to 72 percent. But it isn’t just Republicans. A third of Democrats in 2016 felt Republicans were immoral; now the rate approaches two-thirds. 

It’s the same with the notion of dishonesty. About the same rate of members of both parties (45 percent for Republicans, 42 percent for Democrats) regarded their rivals as dishonest in 2016. Now the rate of Republicans who consider Democrats dishonest is 72 percent. The Democrats’ view of Republicans is little different; 63 percent consider them dishonest. 

Similar results emerged when the pollsters asked about their rivals’ open-mindedness, intelligence, and laziness. 

These sentiments were affirmed by an ABC/Washington Post survey completed early this month. 

Some 86 percent of Democrats believe Biden is trustworthy — but only 9 percent of Republicans do. Some 74 percent of Republicans believe Trump is trustworthy — but only 6 percent of Democrats do. 

Do the two have the mental sharpness to serve effectively as president? Only 5 percent of Republicans believe Biden does, and only 20 percent of Democrats believe Trump does. 

This is information with impact beyond the polling and scholarly worlds. It’s shaping the 2024 presidential election.

At the heart of Biden’s decision to seek a second term is the notion that he is the only person who can defeat Trump. 

He may talk about priorities unrealized, promises as yet unkept, dreams still unfulfilled, an agenda still crying out for final action. 

But his presidential campaign really is about one thing: opposition to Trump. His campaign is based on the conviction that his 2020 opponent is a menace and that the president is a latter-day version of St. George who can slay the Trump dragon. 

The reverse does not explain the Trump campaign. It is designed on a different model entirely, but draws from the same negative-partisanship pond. 

The 45th president’s effort to become the 47th president is based almost entirely on opposition to what Biden has proposed and achieved; on the assertion that the Biden coalition is composed of socialists and communists; and on the suggestion that Biden supporters hate American values. 

The irony is that these rigid partisan views are coming at a time when Americans are less aligned with the two parties than they’ve been in generations. A Gallup Poll this month showed that only 49 percent of Americans belong to one of the major parties — a record low. 

Reagan won a second term 40 years ago with a campaign that wasn’t based on fear of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale but instead on Reagan’s optimistic outlook and on his ability to provide a “morning in America” sense of security. 

In his campaign announcement last month, Biden presented some gauzy production values evocative of the Reagan approach, but they were mixed in with apocalyptic images of the 2021 siege of the Capitol and rhetoric suffused with the implicit argument that Trump is a threat to democracy.

American politics almost always reflect the tone and timbre of American social and cultural life, and an era steeped in negative partisanship is an era of frayed social relationships.

“Supporters of each party have come to perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics, political beliefs and values,” the two Emory scholars wrote in their examination of negative partisanship, “and to view opposing partisans with growing suspicion and hostility.” 


A Swampscott High School Class of 1972 member, David M. Shribman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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