Welcome to Poll Watch, our weekly look at polling data and survey research on the candidates, voters and issues that will shape the 2020 election.
Beyond the scenes of protest and resistance playing out in cities across the country, a movement of a different sort has taken hold.
The American public’s views on the pervasiveness of racism have taken a hard leftward turn over the past few years. Never before in the history of modern polling have Americans expressed such widespread agreement that racial discrimination plays a role in policing — and in society at large.
Driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, this shift has primed the country for a new groundswell — one that has quickly earned the sympathy of most Americans, polling shows. As a result, in less than two weeks, it has already forced local governments and national politicians to make tangible policy commitments.
In a Monmouth University poll released this week, 76 percent of Americans — including 71 percent of white people — called racism and discrimination “a big problem” in the United States. That’s a 26-percentage-point spike since 2015. In the poll, 57 percent of Americans said demonstrators’ anger was fully justified, and another 21 percent called it somewhat justified.
In the Monmouth poll, and in another released this week by CBS News, exactly 57 percent of Americans said police officers were generally more likely to treat black people unfairly than to mistreat white people. In both surveys, about half of white people said so. This was a drastic change, particularly for white Americans, who have not historically said they believed that black people continued to face pervasive discrimination.
“There’s definitely been a seismic shift in the country,” said Steve Phillips, a civil rights lawyer and political analyst who founded the advocacy group Democracy in Color.
He pointed to what might have sounded like a radical demand just a few years ago — cutting funding for police departments and redirecting it toward social services — and noted that it has now been openly embraced by some mayors and police chiefs, in cities including Los Angeles. “I was interested to see how that would play itself out, and now they’re doing it — it’s actually happening,” Mr. Phillips said.
Also this week, lawmakers in Washington have pushed to end a program that sends military equipment to local police departments, and House Democrats have vowed to unveil a sweeping police-reform bill by next week. On the campaign trail, Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday said that if elected president, he would immediately set up a national police oversight commission.
Implicit and explicit bias
In 2009, the year President Barack Obama took office, just 36 percent of white Americans said the country needed to do more to ensure that black people gained equal rights, according to a Pew Research Center poll. By 2017, four years after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, that number had leapt to 54 percent of white people and roughly three in five Americans over all.
Sixty-one percent of the country in that poll said it supported Black Lives Matter.
While polls can tell us only what people say they believe — and could therefore be affected by a respondent’s desire to sound politically correct — a 2018 study by two social psychologists determined that even people’s implicit attitudes had shifted during the Black Lives Matter movement.
That study asked over one million digital participants to quickly associate a series of faces (some black and some white) with a series of words. The researchers found that during and after the protests, people were less likely to immediately associate black people’s images with negative words, or to quickly tie white people to positive ones.
Anup Gampa, a social psychologist at Harvey Mudd College in California and one of the authors of the study, said the shift in attitudes had occurred among people of all ages, and among conservatives as well as liberals. “Based on our findings, I wouldn’t be surprised if these protests have moved even white conservative attitudes to be more pro-black or anti-racist,” he said in an interview, referring to the recent demonstrations.
Mr. Phillips said the shift in attitudes spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement had extended even to the way protesters were operating.
“Much of the road map for how to engage on these issues has been put forward, and so when this happened there was more clarity, I think, around how to respond,” he said. “At some of these protests, they’ve had the white people form the outer ring. So there’s an awareness there that hasn’t been.”
Do protests like this work?
Just before the current round of protests swept the nation, the Princeton professor Omar Wasow published research in which he found that Democratic candidates did better in the wake of nonviolent protest movements organized by black leaders — while Republicans tended to benefit after violent uprisings.
But with a confrontational and sometimes messy gale of protests appearing to gain broad support, there is evidence to suggest that the calculus is not always so straightforward. There were scattered incidents of looting and arson during the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, most notably in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed, and Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died, yet sentiment swung heavily in favor of the movement.
And a separate study, from a three-person team of political and social scientists, found that the Rodney King riots of 1992 helped to mobilize liberal white voters and African-Americans in Los Angeles, leading to a leftward shift in some city policies.
Douglas McLeod, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies the impact of news coverage on social movements, said people consumed a wider variety of information today, pointing in particular to social media. This can help to circumvent what he called “several conventions in media coverage of social protest that work against the protesters” — including a tendency to focus on instances of protester violence, even when they’re relatively rare, and to privilege the accounts of those in uniform.
Dr. McLeod said that as videos showing police brutality against black people have appeared relentlessly on social media, they have helped persuade skeptical Americans that an endemic problem exists. “When these things accumulate over time, and we start to see more and more of these images, the evidence starts to become more incontrovertible,” he said.
A youth movement — with broad appeal
The current round of protests is youth-led, and so too, to some degree, is the shift in nationwide sentiment. Millennials and members of Generation Z are far more likely to say they believe the police are prone to racist behavior. And according to a PBS/NPR/Marist College poll last year, members of those generations were more than twice as likely to support reparations for slavery, compared with baby boomers and others in older generations.
A Pew survey in 2018 also found a stark generational divide over whether N.F.L. players were right to kneel in protest of racial inequality. Among millennials and teenagers in Generation Z, more than three in five expressed approval of the protests; among baby boomers and other older Americans, an equally large share said they disapproved.
Similar trends play out specifically among young black people and other people of color, who express a greater desire for sweeping change, and a more unanimous suspicion of the police. In a recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll of African-Americans, among respondents 35 and under, nine out of 10 said they did not trust the police to treat people of all races equally — higher than in any other age group.
The Trump effect
In this week’s Monmouth poll, most Americans continued to express at least some level of satisfaction with their local police departments. Still, the poll reflected a new willingness — across generations — to say that the police tend to show racial bias.
A similar trend has occurred over the past few years with regard to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for enforcing the country’s immigration laws. It has become the least popular federal agency, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
In a March poll, Americans were just as likely to disapprove of the agency as they were to approve. Of the other nine agencies Pew asked about, none had less than 60 percent approval.
Long before he declared himself “your law and order president” this week, essentially positioning himself against the protesters, President Trump had put support for law enforcement at the center of his political identity. In the process, he has often singled out ICE for praise.
In this case, as in so many others, Mr. Trump’s combative brand of politics tends to draw clear dividing lines: Whether you support him will usually coincide fairly cleanly with your stance on any number of issues. Yet throughout his presidency, he has commanded a minority coalition. That’s certainly true now, with his approval rating stuck in the low 40s.
As he embraces harsh tactics against protesters, and seeks to label many of those fighting for racial justice as “domestic terrorists,” he has helped force a commitment one way or the other. And for the moment, a large and growing majority appears to be choosing the other side.
The Public Religion Research Institute was in the midst of a nationwide poll last week when the first protests broke out over George Floyd’s killing. The group’s researchers found that as demonstrations ramped up, Mr. Trump’s favorability rating fell significantly among certain key voting groups.
In the first three days of the poll, May 26 to 28, 40 percent of political independents expressed a positive view of the president; in interviews conducted over the three days that followed — starting on May 29, when Mr. Trump tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — his approval among independents dropped to 30 percent. Among white Christians, the dip was 11 points. Among seniors, his rating fell especially hard: from 58 percent to 41 percent.