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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Walter: Sorting out the Political Benefits of ‘Confrontation’ or ‘Compassion’

At The Cook Political Report, Amy Walter ruminates on the choices 2020 voters are facing as regards “confrontation or compassion.”

…Does America really want an empathic president who will return our lives to the pre-pandemic normalcy? Do they reject the premise that returning to traditional government with its long-standing structural deficiencies is the answer? Do they want to continue with the change that a Trump presidency has provided or a return to a more stable status quo that Biden would represent?

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that Americans are pretty evenly divided on these questions. When asked about the type of candidate they’d prefer for President and Congress, 44 percent picked those who will “confront and challenge the establishment in government to shake up how it operates,” while 46 percent would rather have leaders who will “bring competence and compassion to the way government operates.”

No doubt many voters want both ‘confrontation’ of some kind, but also more ‘compassion’ (could there be any less compassion and empathy coming from the White House?). It’s not necessarily and either/or choice. While Biden’s impressive poll numbers suggest that more compassion is a winner, sorting out which voters want more confrontation and what kind of confrontation they want is more difficult.

Given how often I hear the word exhausted from those studying swing voters, I was somewhat surprised to see “competence and compassion” only narrowly besting “confront and challenge.” My first thought when I saw these numbers was that there could be a lot of liberals, young people and voters of color in that 44 percent cohort. After all, we’ve seen thousands of people taking to the streets this summer demanding changes to a political, social and economic system that has systemically discriminated against Black people.

But, when I looked through the cross tabs provided to me by NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters, I found that those who want to challenge the establishment and those who want to see a more compassionate return to normalcy fall along familiar political lines.

Most Republicans (64 percent) like the “confront and challenge” approach while most Democrats (70 percent), pick “competence and compassion.” Almost two-thirds of white Evangelicals and 55 percent of white men with less than a college degree support confront and challenge, while 66 percent of liberals and 54 percent of African Americans wanted to see competence and compassion. In other words, even though the poll question did not contain the words “Trump” or “Biden,” voters in the Trump coalition stuck with “confront and challenge” while those in the Biden cohort chose “competence and compassion.”

Among independent voters, “confront and challenge” beats out “competence and compassion” by nine points (51-42 percent). But, it’s hard to know what confront and challenge mean to them. Are they supportive of Trump’s attacks on Governors and local elected officials who aren’t opening schools or the economy fast enough? Or, are they more responsive to messages from Democratic congressional candidates who boast of eschewing corporate PAC money and attack their GOP opponents for being in the back pocket of DC special interests?

With the highest turnout demographic group, however, we may be seeing signs of polarization fatigue. Sure, seniors care about their retirement assets and are often more conservative about social and cultural issues. But many of them don’t like the idea of another 4 years of angry divisiveness, which is the distinguishing characteristic of the Trump Administration. Walter notes further,

But, when we try to understand why older voters, especially those in the 65+ demographic, are currently supporting Biden over Trump, this idea of competence and compassion could be a big reason. Fifty-one percent of those who are retired and 50 percent of those who are 65 years old or older prefer candidates who emphasize compassion and competence.

Walter cautions, “As with every survey, it’s important not to read too much into one question. But, it does help remind us that even while Americans are yearning to ‘get back to normal’, we are deeply divided into what normal would look like.”

Yet Democrats can be encouraged that a broad consensus seems to be forming around the idea that America needs more compassionate leadership, even as we more assertively confront the complex injustices of our times.

One comment on “Walter: Sorting out the Political Benefits of ‘Confrontation’ or ‘Compassion’

  1. Candace on

    “Most Republicans (64 percent) like the “confront and challenge” approach while most Democrats (70 percent) pick “competence and compassion”..

    That poll also said 33% were some or very conservative, 34% moderate. 27% some or very liberal
    72% think the country is headed on the wrong track.

    Choosing a candidate to “confront and challenge the establishment in government to shake up how it operates” doesn’t necessarily mean pro-Trump although the question was set up that way. Trump is the president who is part of the establishment in government who wants to be THE establishment. Its his government and so some of the Republicans voters could feel “confront and challenge” is more important to them in a candidate even if they’re still voting for Trump because they want someone to confront and challenge him.
    And then 26% of the Republicans in that poll wanted a candidate to bring competence and compassion to the way government operates so that is encouraging too.


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